Frank Kush kicked me out of Camp Tontozona.
If I’d been an Arizona State University football player, this would be no big deal. But I was part of the news media, which made it unique. More about this later.
Kush, the most successful coach in Arizona history, college or pro, died last week at 88. He probably was the state’s most enduring and colorful sports figure. If you’ve lived here since the 1960s or even the '70s, you probably had some interaction with him, even if nothing more than to watch his wondrous Sun Devil football teams.
He had a fortune-teller’s ability to scout and judge great prospects. And for players who were less than elite, he made sure they were tougher and better-conditioned than their opponents.
Kush made ASU big time. His teams were so good that big-name schools were reluctant to schedule them or play them in bowl games. Thus, the formation of the Fiesta Bowl.
This success happened within the confines of the freewheeling Western Athletic Conference, where adherence to rules and regulations was not exactly a priority.
In the late 1970s, with ASU's impending move to the elite Pac-10, with better competition and more emphasis on standards and practices, Kush felt himself under much pressure to keep the victories coming.
And so problems developed.
I wrote one of the first substantive critical stories about his program. The story for the campus newspaper, The State Press, detailed how Kush hosted recruits by taking them to Phoenix Greyhound Park where they were given money to gamble on the dogs.
What followed got much more attention. Kush supposedly threw a punch at a punter who got off a lousy kick at Washington. Kush, egged on by well-heeled boosters, seemed to think a crappy punter couldn’t force him out.
He denied the story, but too many witnesses put their names on the punter’s side.
Kush was suspended in 1979 and later reached a settlement to leave the school. ASU football was placed on probation; the university’s reputation was stained. ASU jokes became commonplace through the 1980s and beyond, even reaching the level of The Simpsons.
In 1977, before this all hit the fan, I helped cover Camp Tontozona, the mountainous retreat 100 miles from campus, where the Sun Devils practice for upcoming seasons. This was my final assignment for The State Press.
Kush, the memory of the dog-track story still fresh, kicked me out of camp when he realized I was staying in the cabin reserved for reporters.
A couple of media outlets treated this incident as though it was a key missing piece to the Watergate scandal.
Not me. I was about to graduate and was done reporting on Sun Devil football.
Others would do the heavy lifting on the burgeoning scandals. The best work was done by The State Press, the worst by the local papers and broadcast outlets, whose reporters seemed more interested in being Kush’s buddies than in truth-telling.
Everyone was on the home team’s side, including me, who by now had started buying season tickets.
I never held any grudge about getting the boot. To me, the dog-track story was just business.
To his credit, Kush seemed to hold no grudge either (though I didn’t care much either way).
Besides, Kush was hard to dislike.
He had such a terrific sense of humor. This son of hard-scrabble, blue-collar, Pennsylvania Polish immigrants once published a collection of Polish jokes.
In the mid-1970s, a few of us at The State Press came up with the idea of publishing a prank issue on April Fools' Day. An obvious target was the bloated athletic department.
We received, and published, a letter from somebody who thought one of the first editions of The Stale Mess was hilarious.
The writer was Frank Kush.
On occasion, I ran into him.
In the mid-2000s, he appeared to me suddenly, much like in a Woody Allen movie, where Woody would be expounding on a philosopher’s theories, then pull the philosopher out of a line to a movie theater and interrogate him about his theories.
At the time, beleaguered ASU coach Dirk Koetter was so inept that he couldn’t figure out how to successfully execute a punt. Eventually, this shortcoming helped cost Koetter his job.
About this time, I had had an appointment near the ASU athletic complex and saw a familiar figure walking past the statue of Frank Kush.
It was Frank Kush.
“Hey, coach! I bet you could get 'em to block for a punt!”
Without hesitation, he replied, “IT’S CALLED COACHING!”
Frank Kush was no fan of Dirk Koetter.
In 2012, I arrived long before the ASU-University of Arizona game kicked off in Tucson. I walked around aimlessly, soaking in the pregame atmosphere.
Again, out of nowhere, a familiar figure appeared, carrying a mini-pitchfork, which he proceeded to poke and prod in the region of my groin.
“So, what do you think, coach?”
We then discussed the pros and cons of the Sun Devils’ chances.
A year later, before a big game at UCLA, he posed for pictures with fans, including our family. He handed our camera to a former player to take the photo, saying, “See, I can still coach 'em up.”
In August 2015, we headed north for the annual scrimmage at Camp Tontozona (38 years after I got the boot).
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The Sun Devils were the subject of much hype, so the scrimmage drew a record crowd. The scrimmage was forgettable, except for the arrival of a frail version of Frank Kush, who drew a memorable roar.
I never saw him again.
Today, I mourn the passing of this unforgettable figure.