Tontozona’S Fate Remains Unsettled


Rumors of a return of the Arizona State University Sun Devils football team to the tranquil grounds of Camp Tontozona on the Mogollon Rim are being downplayed, if not outright denied, by ASU officials.

Rumors of a return of the Arizona State University Sun Devils football team to the tranquil grounds of Camp Tontozona on the Mogollon Rim are being downplayed, if not outright denied, by ASU officials. |

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Arizona State University officials are denying persistent rumors that newly appointed Sun Devil football coach Todd Graham might resume preseason training at Camp Tontozona.

“At this point there are no plans for this,” said ASU Associate Athletic Director Mark Brand. “Coach (Graham) is still trying to hire his staff and finish recruiting off until signing day in February.

“That is what he is consumed with right now.”

The rumors circulating that ASU might return to Tontozona include innuendos that former Sun Devil offensive lineman Scott Peters, who played seven seasons in the NFL, is lobbying ASU President Michael M. Crow to have the Devils resume training at the camp located east of Payson near Kohl’s Ranch.

Peters could not be reached for comment.

Brand did, however, respond, “What you are hearing is strictly rumor and nothing is factual at this point.

“We’ll see what the future brings.”

There are those in the Christopher Creek-Kohl’s Ranch vicinity, including real estate agent and ASU alum Tim Ehrhardt, who believe ASU’s return to the historic camp would be an economic boon to the area.

He says he’s trying to convince Payson and Christopher Creek residents to get involved in the effort to bring the Sun Devils back to Tontozona because, “I think there is a lot of upside for both (towns).”

He also says, “I would be really disappointed if local leadership doesn’t make it happen.”

The 36-acre campsite located in the Tonto National Forest has been renowned since 1960 as a summer training camp for Arizona State University football teams — two of which went to Rose Bowl games.

Over the years, Tontozona became known as the most scenic and pristine preseason campsite in collegiate football.

But four years ago, Dennis Erickson — then a second-year coach for the Sun Devils — decided the camp no longer fit the needs of the football team and decided to keep the players in Tempe for preseason training and practices in a new $8.4 million air conditioned, indoor practice facility.

In 2007, ASU held its final full preseason camp at Tontozona prompting disgruntled alumni in attendance to mourn the passing of what most considered a sacred place for ASU football.

A year later, boosters had a bone thrown their way when Erickson and school officials decided to hold a single fans’ scrimmage at Tontozona.

Hiking out of the camp after the scrimmage, fan Art Randall turned around, gazed at the field and said, “Maybe Erickson ought to paint ponderosas, squirrels, creeks and Mt. Kush (which stands just south of the Tontozona playing field) on the inside of that new bubble (indoor practice facility) in Tempe ... that’s about as close as they’ll get to ever coming here again.”

After Erickson abandoned Tontozona, Tonto Creek Camp, an organization formed solely for the purpose of managing Tontozona, took over supervision of the legendary camp with plans to turn it into a hot spot for events, camps and retreats.

A number of events were held there including a pole vaulting camp, high school preseason training sessions, a university soccer camp and a Payson School District youth leadership camp.

In taking over management of the camp early in 2011, TCC Executive Director Tom Fraker emphasized ASU would retain ownership and if at some point in the future an ASU football coach decides to return Sun Devils teams to Tontozona for preseason training, that would be permissible.

The legend of the camp

Sports officials and journalists have long touted ASU’s scenic mountain retreat as one of the most unique and pristine university football training camps in the country.

Bob Eger, a longtime sports reporter who in 2001 authored “Maroon and Gold, a History of Sun Devil Athletics,” once said the camp was one of his five favorite places in the world.

Tontozona’s lush, expertly groomed football field lies in a scenic basin, surrounded by towering mountains covered with ponderosa pine trees.

On the camp property, a bubbling spring forms a natural whirlpool. Tonto Creek is just a few minutes walk away.

Also unique about the camp is that boosters and fans were able to rub elbows with some of the finest players ever to don Sun Devil uniforms including Pat Tillman, Reggie Jackson, Danny White, John Jefferson, Randall McDaniel, Mark Malone and Charley Taylor.

The name, Camp Tontozona — combining nearby Tonto Creek and Arizona — was chosen in the late 1960s about the time legendary ASU football coach Frank Kush began using the camp for preseason training.

ASU acquired the property seven years before Kush began using it as a football-training site, when the Arizona Board of Regents deeded it to Arizona State College at Tempe, now ASU.

Kush spearheaded the move to turn the retreat into a camp, where his team could prepare for the rigors of the coming season.

Kush said he got the idea for the camp from his high school days in Pennsylvania. His prep team often retreated from the friendly confines of his hometown to train at a remote campsite, formerly used by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The former Sun Devil coach often said that Tontozona was an ideal training ground because it provided a site where players could focus on football, far away from the distractions of the Tempe campus.

Longtime visitors to the camp will remember a nearby mountain, dubbed Mt. Kush, was the bane of ASU football team members.

Players who erred during practice sessions were forced to undertake the grueling climb from the camp to the top of Mt. Kush.

The camps under Kush developed a reputation, as some of the most demanding and rigorous in college football and the rigors were often too much to endure for some players.

Under Kush, athletes who threw in the towel at Tontozona, had to ring a bell in mid-camp to get a ride back to Tempe.

That was too humiliating for some, so they hitchhiked to Payson and south on the Beeline back to the ASU campus.

Among those former Sun Devils stars who remember well the demands of Camp Tontozona is Rob Peterson, a member of ASU’s 1975 team that finished 12-0 and beat Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl. For Peterson, Tontozona was a camp where winners were molded.

“Yes, boys went to Camp Tontozona but they came out men,” he recalls. “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 you puked.”

And for those who blew an assignment, such as offsides or a missed block, there were those grueling trips up Mt. Kush.

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

In the 22 years that Kush took the Devils to Tontozona, never once cutting the trip short by even a day, ASU was 176-54-1.

From 1969 to 1971, the team strung together a 21-game school record-winning streak. Kush and some of his players, including Peterson, continue to attribute the team’s success during those glory years in part to the mental toughness learned at Tontozona.

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