Hall of Fame football coach Frank Kush must have had twinkle in his eye and a glow in his heart after hearing the announcement last week in Tempe that new Arizona State coach Todd Graham is going to return the Sun Devil football team to Camp Tontozona for preseason training.
It was Kush who, more than 50 years ago, spearheaded the move to use Tontozona as a training site for his first Sun Devil football teams.
Those sessions, as grueling and demanding as they were, obviously paid huge dividends in the win-loss column. During Kush’s 22 seasons at ASU, all of which included stints at Tontozona, the Devils 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 over 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 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.
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 mid-camp 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.
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 (to 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.
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 that 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.
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 was a popular TV sports commentator, was a huge attraction among Rim Country football fans.
Kush has said the scrimmages at Payson High, which were eventually discontinued, “were 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 legendary coach was also the guest speaker at Payson High’s 2009 undefeated state champion team banquet.
The Rim Country, he said, is one of his favorite high country destinations.
Ex Dog, Lobo now a head coach
Longtime Payson football fans will remember Adam Larsen as the former Winslow High School athlete who was one of the finest two-way linemen in the state.
After graduation, he eventually returned to Winslow as head coach, then took over at Snowflake where his teams annually played the Longhorns.
At Winslow he had a 51-15 record and at Snowflake his 2005 Lobo team finished as state runner-up. From 2007 to 2009 at Snowflake, his teams made the 3A conference playoffs and engaged in several fierce gridiron battles vs. PHS.
In 2010, Larsen surprisingly left Snowflake to become an assistant coach to Joe Kersting at Glendale Deer Valley. He also was head wrestling coach at DV.
In departing Snowflake, Larsen said he wanted the opportunity to coach along Kersting, who had been at Glendale Community College for 21 years, 16 as head coach.
Under Kersting the Gauchos won 14 conference championships and 11 bowl games.
Just last week, Kersting resigned without explanation and was replaced by Larsen.
Although Deer Valley made the D-II state quarterfinals last season, the former Bulldog and Longhorn star appears to have his coaching work cut out for him, mostly because the school will be rebuilding having lost its core of players to graduation.