Former Arizona State University coach Dennis Erickson might not have been fond of Camp Tontozona but his replacement Todd Graham is enamored with the mountain retreat.
In 2008, Erickson’s second year as head coach of the Sun Devils, he ended the 48-year tradition of holding preseason training at the fabled camp choosing instead to practice in the Dickey Dome — a $8.4 million practice bubble near the Kajikawa practice fields on the ASU campus.
That decision shocked Devil fans that regarded the camp as a type of mystic haven where ASU coaches could mold teams into championship contenders.
Erickson’s failures at ASU, his teams were 21-18 and 14-22 in the Pac-10, are well documented.
Eventually, the losses and sloppy play cost him his job.
The defeats, many Devils disciples agree, were the result of Erickson’s decision to abandon Camp Tontozona.
Graham replaced Erickson and in 2012 — the new coach’s first year at the helm of the program — the team renewed their tradition of training at Tontozona. The Sun Devils went on to finish 8-5, capping the season with a 62-48 win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
The winning season was the first ASU had enjoyed since the decision was made to leave Tontozona.
Needless to say, many Devil fans attributed the turnaround season to Graham’s reaffirmation of the importance of practicing at Camp T.
Today, Graham leaves little doubt he is a huge fan of the retreat located east of Payson near Kohl’s Ranch.
“I want to take my teams to Camp T because that is where the tradition and season begins,” he has told the media. “Coach Frank Kush had a vision and it worked out very well. I want to perpetuate that tradition.”
Among those who remember the tradition well is Rob Peterson, who along with his twin brother, Tim, participated in four training camps at Tontozona under Kush, now a Hall of Fame member.
Both were members of ASU’s 1975 team that finished 12-0 and beat Nebraska 17-14 in the Fiesta Bowl. Rob remembers Tontozona as a camp where winners were molded.
“Yes, boys went to Camp Tontozona but they came out men,” 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 you puked.”
And for those who blew an assignment, such as offsides 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 highly successful NFL careers. They included Danny White, Benny Malone, Mark Malone, Curley Culp, John Jefferson, Charley Taylor and of course, Pat Tillman.
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.
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 told his “Theory of Coaching Football” class at Arizona State.
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 told the Roundup in an interview several years ago.
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 (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 on 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.
A testament to Graham’s commitment to restoring the Camp T tradition unfolded during the 2012 preseason training when he and the players climbed the fabled Mt. Kush.
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 Arizona.