For nearly 50 years, Arizona State University has been practicing football at Camp Tontozona northeast of Payson. Numerous coaches have led their teams up the hill from the Valley to enjoy the tall pines. Since ASU is once again practicing at Camp Tontozona this week, I thought it might be appropriate to take a look back at how Frank Kush and his Sun Devils started practicing football at Camp Tontozona.
Frank Kush was behind ASU putting in a football field at Tontozona. While we don't have room for the whole clips about it here, Kush told all about how the field came to be in a 1995 Tempe Historical Society interview.
"Arizona State College at that time had this little camp -- it really wasn't a camp, it was kind of a retreat for the faculty, and Dr. Gammage had a cottage up at Tontozona, which was right up at Payson, right next to Kohl's Ranch. And we went up there fishing on Tonto Creek, and I saw this facility. There was no football field there; it was kind of a hill. And I thought to myself, ‘Boy, this would be a fantastic place for a preseason training site, as we had in high school.' And so I went back and kind of checked out on some general aspects of it and everything else, and our athletic director at that time, Clyde Smith, I knew I had to present a number of statistics to prove why we should go there. So my whole point, my entire point of selling the administration on the program was the weather, the contrast between practice down in the Valley in preseason training in August, and, say, training in the mountains in the cold breeze of the pine trees. Well, when I first came here -- to regress slightly -- I thought to myself, ‘Good gravy, how can these players ever take this conditioning through these adverse [conditions], heat and everything else?' And I just couldn't imagine how they could wear full pads. So I checked out the temperatures and the contrast of the temperatures between Payson and down in Tempe, and I kind of sold it."
Actually Kush had the field put in before he had it "sold" to the administration.
"The road between Payson and Kohl's Ranch at that time was a dirt road (today's Highway 260). And Tanner Brother Construction Company was building it. And after I saw this site down there, and I asked -- I went to the foreman of Tanner Brothers, and I introduced myself, and I knew Mr. Tanner had been a Sun Angel, which was the booster group. And I said, ‘What's the possibility of getting this fill down here kind of leveled off, et cetera, and made into a football field?' He said, ‘Well, let's go take a look at it.' So we went down -- say this was a Thursday or so ... and so we went down there and the guy said to me, ‘We'll bring a machine down, if you could have your coaches here and help us out, et cetera and everything else ...' And he brought one of those big carry-alls, you know, one of those big digging machines that had the bottom that just closes, and you level off the dirt. But going down to Kohl's Ranch on that dirt road along Tonto Creek there, there were wires from one side of the road to the other, and we had to get up there to lift ‘em up with sticks, et cetera, so this big dirt remover could get down there. So anyway, they get down there, and we spent, I'd say, the better part of a Saturday morning, leveling off the fill. I'm talking about leveling off, and we put barbed wire fence around it -- not that immediate day -- put barbed wire fence on it. And Mrs. Gammage -- this was on a Saturday -- we went back up there the following Saturday, and no one was aware of what we did! (laughs) And that was the funny part about it. Anyway, so -- and then after we got this all done, put up the barbed wire fence and leveled off the field, et cetera and everything else, I went to Clyde Smith, the athletic director, and told him what a great opportunity this would be for preseason training. Well, he turned it down. And the acting president at that time was Dr. Richardson. And evidently, I'm sure he talked to Clyde Smith, and HE turned it down ... so I went to Wynn Laney and O. D. Miller, who were on the Board of Regents at the time. And I talked to them -- I'm talking about the heat, et cetera and everything else, so they thought it was a good idea. And they said, ‘Well, have you got permission from the NCAA?' I said, ‘No, I have not, because, you know, I didn't think it was necessary.' And they said, ‘Well, why don't you check with the NCAA?' So I called Walt Byers, who was the president of NCAA, at Kansas City. And he told me to send him some information, which I did. I got it to him immediately as you could. And he sent a letter back stating as long as there were no funds from outside sources being used to develop this program and camp, et cetera and everything else, that it would be all right. So I got the letter, showed it to O. D. Miller and Wynn Laney. Evidently they talked to Richardson and talked to Clyde Smith. And then Clyde Smith came to me and said, ‘You know, that's not such a bad idea, that football camp (laughing).' So that's how it all started, and that was in 1959."
Kush and the Sun Devils first practiced at Camp Tontozona in 1960 and it's clear that Kush feels that Tontozona was important to his teams, though not one without a learning curve.
"I think our first season was in '60. And it was a God-save in many respects, because you could practice. In fact, that's where WE started the concept of three practices a day, because the weather was just fantastic. We would go there .... The first year, I might add, we stayed too long, and we lost our first ball game to Wichita -- I'll never forget that -- BECAUSE I kept 'em there too long. We had a more difficult time adjusting to the heat down in the Valley, because when you came from Payson, say, the temperatures were during the daytime in the 80s -- say, 70s and 80s, et cetera, and really cool. And the key to it is the recovery from any strenuous activity up there, in football practice. And we stayed up there for about 12 or 14 days, and then came down. And boy, by the time we adjusted to the heat, it was at least a week-and-a-half. We lost our first ball game because of that. I blame myself for that, because even though it was a close ball game, our players were probably more exhausted than the Wichita players because it gets awful hot in Kansas in the summertime, but we're up in the cool country."
Over the years Tontozona has become a special place for ASU fans, students, and alumni. For a long time they would hold an end-of-camp scrimmage on a Saturday, which drew more than 5,000 people most years. For a time in the mid 1970s, the scrimmage was even held at Payson High School. Numerous publications across the country have written about the place including Sports Illustrated. In December of 1975, the Lincoln Journal wrote about Camp Tontozona as the Sun Devils prepared to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers in that year's Fiesta Bowl.
"Arizona State's football team may operate from the I formation, like Fiesta Bowl foe Nebraska, and play a 5-2 defense, like all the teams from the Big Eight Conference, but the Sun Devils' program is unique in one respect. ASU holds all of its preseason practices -- from late August until time for the first game -- at a mountain retreat. It's like the Broadway play that opens in New Haven before moving to the big city."
Last but not least, you cannot talk about Tontozona without mentioning Mount Kush. Here's what the Lincoln Journal had to say about that mountain in 1975:
"Just behind the buildings and practice field is a steep mountain. ‘The first thing we do is climb that as a group,' Kush says. ‘When we get up on top the rookies sing their high school fight songs. I think the whole concept starts us out with a lot of togetherness.'
"To hear the players talk, it isn't quite all that much ‘fun' They call the steep hillside ‘Kush's Mountain' and say that a mistake in practice means another climb to the top -- in full pads."