End Of An Era

ASU ends 48 years of training at Camp Tontozona


College football is highlighted by great traditions that give it a unique identity different from all other sports.

There's the fabled 12th Man at Texas A&M, Clemson University has Howard's Rock, the University of Georgia's Uga is the most recognizable mascot in sports and the Minnesota Golden Gophers annually battle the Michigan Wolverines for the right to take home the most famous trophy in football -- the Little Brown Jug.


The ASU Sun Devils will no longer travel to Camp Tontozona for preseason training.

Along with those traditions, Arizona State University could once boast of Camp Tontozona. Nestled in the ponderosa pine trees at an elevation of 5,612 feet, it was one of the most unique and scenic training camps in the country.

Each year since 1960, the Sun Devils have made the trek north from the Tempe campus to train at the high mountain retreat located about 14 miles east of Payson near Kohl's Ranch.

Now, however, say goodbye to that tradition and hello to the school's new $8.4 million practice bubble near the Kajikawa practice facility on campus.

ASU made the decision last week to abandon the Tontozona training camp in favor of the indoor facility.

In ditching the camp, ASU second-year coach Dennis Erickson issued a statement that read, "We're honoring ASU's great Camp Tontozona tradition by holding a scrimmage there for everyone to enjoy."

So, instead of the usual week-long training camp at Tontozona, ASU will now host a single scrimmage at their former mountain home.

It will be held from 11:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. Aug. 16.

The decision to abandon Tontozona has raised the ire of many former Sun Devils including Rob Peterson, who along with his twin brother, Tim, participated in four training camps at Tontozona under former ASU coach Frank Kush, now a Hall of Fame member.

"To think that (ASU athletic director) Lisa Love is going to shut down Camp Tontozona is a travesty," he said. "What does she know about Arizona State tradition, I suggest very little."

Peterson, a member of ASU's 1975 team that finished 12-0 and beat Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl, remembers Tontozona as a camp where winners were molded.

"Yes, boys went to Camp Tontozona but they came out men giving ASU the highest national ranking (No. 2) in the history of the school," he said. "We practiced three times a day, full pads, full contact in the morning, shorts and shirts right after lunch and full pads in the afternoon.

"There were sprints and gassers until until you puked."

And for those who blew an assignment, such as off sides or a missed block, there were grueling trips up fabled Mt. Kush, located just south of the practice field.

"At night we laughed, cried and nursed each other's wounds," Peterson said. "Thirty-three practices in 11 days, rain or shine."

Of course, there were those players who couldn't, or wouldn't, meet the rigorous demands of training camp at Tontozona.

"Some disappeared during the night never to return," Peterson said.

Athletes who officially threw in the towel had to ring a bell at mid-camp to hitch a ride back to Tempe.

But that often was too humiliating for some. So, they hitchhiked to Payson and south on the Beeline back to the ASU campus.

But there were also those players who thrived at Tontozona and went on to pro careers. They included Danny White, Benny Malone, Mark Malone, Curley Culp, John Jefferson and Charley Taylor. Baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson played football at ASU and attended two sessions at Camp Tontozona before signing a professional baseball contract.

For Peterson, stepping on the carefully manicured Tontozona field was a privilege.

"Just to have the chance to practice where former ASU players were molded into champions was a great honor," he said.

Over the years, much of the success of Kush's teams has been attributed to the rugged training sessions at Camp Tontozona.

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

In the 1960s and 70s, many an ASU player who had a love-hate relationship 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.

Among the ASU players to attend Camp Tontozona in the early 1960s, 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.

But as legendary as Camp Tontozona is, the sideline talk the past few summers has centered on whether the new breed of ASU players realized the true value the camp would pay later in the season.

The fans' queries apparently began after ASU players were able to convince coaches to shorten the team's stay in the Rim Country saying the longer training camp was too demanding and not worthwhile.

"You wouldn't have heard them saying that under Kush," said Gary Wright as he watched a practice last year. "I heard one (player) complaining his cell phone wouldn't work."

ASU fan Ryan Oliver, who has been traveling to Tontozona for preseason practices for two decades, is sure abandoning the camp is a mistake.

"There, they had no one to rely on but each other," he said. "They got things accomplished at Tontozona that they'll never be able to in Tempe."

A tradition is born

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

"No calls, no girls, no distractions; just football," former ASU assistant coach Bill Kajikawa once said.

The no-nonsense Kush got the idea for an ASU training camp from his 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 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 several times by ASU coaches who followed Kush. Both Larry Marmie and Dirk Koetter opted to break camp early and return the team to Tempe because of the downpours that drenched the retreat.

Each time Marmie and Koetter left, ASU had sub par seasons prompting Sun Devil football faithful to blame the decision to depart Tontozona as a contributor to the dismal season.

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.

Also, the fabled Mt. Kush treks that Peterson remembers so well haven't been used since Kush's days. Today, the mountain is only climbed as a vantage point to view the scenery.

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

With Kush relying on Tontozona as a site to build the foundation of his 22 teams, he was able to compile a 176-54-1 record. Most importantly for Devil worshippers, he dominated the series against the University of Arizona winning 16 of 21 games against the Cats.

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

Kush, now an ASU assistant to the athletic director, is on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment about the decision to leave Tontozona.

However, in the past he has said abandoning Camp Tontozona would be a big mistake.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.