Coach Offers Football History Lesson


Hall of Fame football coach Frank Kush returned last week to Camp Tontozona where he gave a few words of inspiration to the current crop of Sun Devil football players.

The ASU team spent Aug. 10 to Aug. 16 at the scenic mountain retreat, located 17 miles east of Payson, preparing for the upcoming season.


Hall of Fame coach Frank Kush

In addition to giving a pep talk to the team, the 77-year-old Kush probably shared a good old-fashioned Tontozona history lesson.

He's well equipped to do that. Kush is the man who spearheaded the drive to build Tontozona and then used the camp to mold some of the university's most successful football teams.

During his 22 seasons at the helm of the Sun Devil football program, Kush compiled a 176-54-1 record. Most importantly for Devil worshippers, he dominated the series against the University of Arizona, compiling a 16-5 record.

From 1965 to 1973, Kush's teams built a 9-0 winning streak over the Cats.

His finest team might have been in 1976 when the Sun Devils captured the nation's attention by capping a 12-0 season with a 17-14 win Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

Much of the success of those ASU teams has been attributed to the rugged training sessions at Camp Tontozona.

Some compared stays at the rigorous camp to a Marine boot camp.

In the 1960s and 70s, many an ASU player who had a love-hate relationships with the camp said the mental toughness gained at Tontozona was the reason the Devils were able to pull out wins in the waning moments and often upset more talented opponents.

However, the rigors of the camp were often too much to endure for some players. Athletes who threw in the towel had to ring a bell midcamp to hitch a ride back to Tempe.

That often was too humiliating for some. So, they hitchhiked to Payson and south on the Beeline back to the ASU campus. Among the first players to attend Camp Tontozona was former Payson High School football coach Dan Dunn.

With a little prodding, he'll spin tales about the camp that will keep listeners enthralled for hours.

The past week, the sideline talk at Camp Tontozona and Rumsey Park questioned whether the current ASU players realized the true value the camp training would pay later in the season.

The fan questions apparently began after the players were able to convince coaches to shorten the team's stay in the Rim Country by three days, saying the longer training camp was too demanding and not worthwhile.

"You wouldn't have heard them saying that under Kush," a fan said while watching a practice. "I heard one (player) complaining his cell phone wouldn't work."

Kush first took his Sun Devil squads to Tontozona in 1960 after eyeing the university retreat as an ideal spot to train his players away from the heat and distractions of the Tempe campus.

"No calls, no girls, no distractions; just football," former ASU assistant coach Bill Kajikawa told students in a Theory of Coaching Football class he was teaching in 1970.

Kush said he got the idea for an ASU training camp from his playing days at a Pennsylvania high school.

"We had preseason (practices) at an old, abandoned Pittsburgh Steelers camp," he said.

Kush first spotted the scenic Rim Country mountain retreat while visiting then ASU-president Grady Gammage who had a summer home there.

"We were going up there (Tontozona) when nine miles of the road from Payson to Kohl's Ranch was dirt," Kush said.

Because there wasn't enough room for a full-sized football field in the narrow meadow at Tontozona, Kush approached a construction crew working near Kohl's Ranch and solicited the heavy equipment needed to widen the area.

Later, with the help of assistant coaches, friends, family and players, a regulation field was forged out of the pine-studded forest.

"We had a Sun Angel member in Albuquerque send us Kentucky bluegrass for the field," Kush said.

Kush remembers that in the early years of Tontozona, torrential downpours almost caused him to give up the camp.

"We practiced many times in ankle-deep mud," he said.

Practicing in the mud was nixed Aug. 16 by current coach Dirk Koetter when he decided to break camp early and return the team to Tempe.

Koetter called the field at Tontozona "unsafe" because of the downpours that drenched the retreat.

Today's Camp Tontozona, which has been upgraded with new buildings, dormitories and other facilities, is vastly improved over what it was in Kush's coaching days.

Then, Tontozona was a Spartan retreat that had no hot water, phones or televisions and about the only spectators at practices were bears, squirrels and mountain lions.

For those players who made mental mistakes during practice, the remedy was a run up a nearby mountain the players nicknamed "Mount Kush."

The fabled mountain hasn't been used since Kush's days and is usually only climbed now as a vantage point to view the scenic surroundings.

Last year, just prior to the onset of Camp Tontozona, wide receiver Derek Hogan was quoted as saying climbing Mount Kush "would not be fun."

Old-timers scoff about the upgrades at the camp and not having to run the mountain, saying players now have it too easy.

In the mid-1970s, a highlight of the summer in the Rim Country was the annual fans' scrimmage held on the Payson High football field.

There, fans could roam the sidelines and rub elbows with Kush, his staff and players.

In 1976, freshman quarterback Mark Malone, who went on to star for the Pittsburgh Steelers and is now a TV sports commentator, was a popular attraction among Rim Country football fans.

Kush has said the scrimmage at Payson High, "was a great tradition. I don't know why they still don't do that."

The former ASU coach has long maintained strong ties to Payson High School. In the fall of 1991, he was the special guest of the PHS team at a practice and game. At the practice, one of his first choices was to work with the offensive guards -- the position he played at Michigan State.

The following day, he wore a Longhorn football shirt to the Christopher Creek to Kohl's Ranch 10K run.

In 1986, a year the Horns advanced to the state championship, Kush was the guest speaker at the team's year-end awards banquet.

The Rim Country, he said, is one of his favorite high country destinations.

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