When Hall of Fame football coach Frank Kush strolls on to the Camp Tontozona field next week it’ll be a blast from the past that’s sure to stir decades of fond memories among Devils disciples.
Despite Kush’s advancing age, he’ll be there to show his support for the Sun Devil players and coaches as they conduct preseason training Aug. 12 to 17.
Last summer, in the Devils’ first stay at Tontozona in four years, Kush — who coached ASU for 22 years leading them to some of their finest seasons ever — watched most practices from the sidelines. On occasion, current coach Todd Graham asked him to address the players and relive some of the storied history of the Sun Devil football program.
When Kush wasn’t talking to the team at Tontozona last summer, he was swarmed by well-wishers eager to greet and shake hands with the coach who is a legend in ASU football history.
But there were also those newbies who didn’t recognize Kush as evidenced by whispers of, “Who’s he?” and “Why are all the players and coaches paying so much attention to him?”
Those fans obviously have little knowledge of Arizona State gridiron history because Kush is the father of Sun Devil football lore.
Decades ago, the legendary coach was making headlines by leading his Sun Devil football teams to Top 10 poll rankings and sending All-Americans like Danny White, John Jefferson, Mike Haynes, Curley Culp and Woody Green to the pro ranks.
He’s also the man who spearheaded the building of Camp Tontozona as a preseason football camp, which — despite being abandoned for four years by former ASU coach Dennis Erickson — is widely considered one of the premier university training camps in the country.
Many of the football players under Kush attributed their mental toughness to the rugged training sessions they had undergone at the scenic mountain retreat.
For the past few years, Kush has slowed, but continues to serve as chairman of the Frank Kush Youth Foundation and works as a special assistant at ASU.
All-American at 175 pounds
For those of us who attended ASU in the mid-1960s — just when coach Kush was turning what was a small-college program into one of the elite programs in the country — our memories of him are vivid.
The most impressive thing about Coach Kush was that he was obviously fueled by a fire burning inside that helped him become an All-American guard at Michigan State, despite weighing only 175 pounds.
ASU students in the ’60s also knew Coach Kush had risen from an impoverished Pennsylvania family. His father died when he was 15 and he was the oldest of 10 children.
Kush once told a reporter writing a Tempe history project, “We had no electricity, we had no hot water and we were lucky to eat three meals as we know ’em today.”
In the same interview, Kush also praised his father saying, “My dad was quite a disciplinarian and he required all of us to go to school.”
Knowing his father’s insistence on an education, Kush accepted a football scholarship in 1948 to Washington and Lee, but transferred a semester later to Michigan State.
There, coaches Biggie Munn and Duffy Dougherty helped mold his life and coaching philosophy.
It was an “old school” philosophy that included a strong work ethic, trustworthiness and responsibility.
Those of us who attended ASU in the the 1960s, now realize that Kush and other coaches and teachers like Bill Kajikawa, Ned Wulk, Bobby Winkles and Baldy Castillo were teaching Character Counts long before the six-pillar program became a part of public education.
You’re in the Army now
In the 1940s and on into the 1960s every male student at ASU and some other schools were required to take a minimum of two years of Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC).
After two years in basic training we were offered the opportunity continue on for another two and eventually become a commissioned officer.
As a junior at MSU, Kush decided to enroll for the full four years of training.
He said, he decided to take the final two years because advanced cadets were paid $27.50 a month and that was money he needed.
After graduation from Michigan State and wrapping up an illustrious football career that included playing on a national championship team and being named All-American, Kush went into the Army as an infantry officer.
While stationed at Fort Benning, Ga., he was appointed coach of the base football team, which turned out to be his introduction to coaching.
After being discharged from the Army in 1955, Kush’s aspirations were to become a high school biology and PE teacher. But later, he accepted an offer to be an assistant coach to Dan Devine who had just taken over at Arizona State.
After Devine departed four years later to become coach at the University of Missouri, Kush, then just 29, was named the head coach of the Sun Devils.
During his 22 seasons at ASU, Kush posted a 176-54-1 record to become the 19th most winning Division I coach. He ranks seventh in the nation in most victories at one school.
During his tenure at ASU, there were also those who took potshots at Kush claiming he was too demanding and too tough on the young players.
But on the ASU campus in the 1960s and ’70s, Coach Kush was known simply as “The Man” and there were plenty of talented football players who said they chose ASU because of Kush’s reputation as a disciplinarian.
Kush has said, “I felt that I was the extension of their parents when we recruited these kids. I’m talking about social responsibilities. We didn’t put up with any nonsense.
“For example, drugs. We had very little of it. We had six (players with) drug problems — marijuana. I gave them an opportunity to resolve their problems, and I got them medical advice and everything else. And I told ’em, ‘If you don’t do it, if you don’t straighten up your act, you’re gonna lose your scholarship.’
“Bing. Five of ’em lost their scholarships, because they did not change their habits.”
Kush’s demanding ways paid huge dividends. The Sun Devils strung together 21 consecutive wins from 1969 to 1971 and had other winning streaks of 13 and 12 games (twice).
In 1975, the Devils finished 12-0, beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl and wrapped up the season ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Most impressive about Kush’s teams is that they were almost always smaller, but faster than their opponents. They were also better conditioned than their foes and were at their best in big games and clutch moments.
After leaving ASU, Kush coached professionally in Canada, with the Indianapolis Colts and the Arizona Outlaws. He also served a stint as the executive administrator at Arizona Boys Ranch.
In 1995, Kush was elected into the college Hall of Fame and in 2000 to the Michigan State University Hall of Fame. Kush is of Polish descent and has also been inducted into the National Polish American Hall of Fame.
Kush might have departed the ASU campus in 1979, but there were always students who continued to recognize his accomplishments. During the football team’s spiraling downfall several years ago, many students donned T-shirts that read, “WWKD: What Would Kush Do?”
Cats stand in the way
In the mid-1950s when then-Arizona State College asked voters to approve a referendum to make it a university, Kush traveled the state in support of the name change. In the coach’s efforts to facilitate the change, Kush often clashed with bigwigs from Tucson and Pima County who were out to preserve the University of Arizona as the state’s only university.
The Arizona Board of Regents, dominated by U of A alumni, stonewalled the movement to have a second university in Arizona.
ASU students eventually took their cause to the people and in 1958 Arizona voters approved by a 2-1 margin Proposition 200 that made Arizona State a university. The only county that did not pass the proposition was Pima.
Years later, Kush continued to be obviously rankled by the University of Arizona alumni’s opposition to the ASC becoming ASU, but only casually referred to Wildcat faithful as “Rascals.”
To honor Kush, the Sun Devil Stadium field has been named Frank Kush Field and a statue of him graces the south entrance.