Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Frank Kush, 1929-2017

One of the toughest coaches who ever lived died last week. Some people loved him for being that tough. Not all people, though.

Frank Joseph Kush was born on January 20, 1929 -- the same week as Dr. Martin Luther King, comedian Arte Johnson, and hockey icon Jacques Plante -- in Windber, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. Like many people in Western Pennsylvania, he was of Polish descent, and I suspect that his father or grandfather shortened the family name from something like "Kuczynski" or something like that to "Kush."

He was recruited to Michigan State University as a defensive lineman by coach Clarence "Biggie" Munn, and was an All-American in 1952, helping the Spartans win the National Championship. But the Korean War was on, and it was the U.S. Army rather than an NFL team that drafted him.

It worked out well for him, as he rose to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, and coached the football team at Fort Benning in Georgia. Dan Devine, later to be the head coach at Notre Dame, was an assistant to Munn, remembered Kush, and in 1955 hired him as an assistant at Arizona State University in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. When Devine was lured away by the University of Missouri in 1958, Kush, was promoted to head coach. He moved into what was then a brand-new facility, Sun Devil Stadium.

The Army didn't make Kush tough, it only intensified the toughness he already had. And he wanted players who were tough. In the Summer, in the punishing heat of the Arizona desert (Cliche alert: "But it's a dry heat"), he seemed to copy Bear Bryant's 1954 Texas A&M "Junction Boys" plan.

He had a drill he called Bull in the Ring. A player he felt needed "motivation" would be put in the middle of a circle of players. Kush would call out a uniform number, and the player wearing it would rush him, and the two would block each other until Kush blew his whistle. Whichever player gave the best effort would be promoted to the circle, and the one who didn't would be relegated to the middle. One of Kush's Sun Devils, future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Curley Culp, remembered breaking a teammate's face mask in such a drill.

He would also have a center, a quarterback, and 2 running backs -- nobody else, no linemen to block, just those 4 kids, and they were kids, just 17 to 22 years of age -- run plays against an entire 11-man defense. He figured if they could take it without blockers, they could take it with blockers.

Kush held training camp at ASU-owned Camp Tontozona near Payson, over 100 miles northeast of campus in the Tonto National Forest. There was a steep hill there that got nicknamed Mount Kush. If Kush thought a player needed discipline, he would have him run up and down that hill repeatedly.

But it worked. In 1959, his 2nd season in charge, ASU won the Border Conference, a league that also included arch-rival the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Texas Tech, Texas-El Paso, Hardin-Simmons University, and West Texas A&M. In 1961, he won the title again.

The Border Conference folded in 1962, opening the door for a new league, the Western Athletic Conference. Border Conference members ASU, Arizona and New Mexico became charter members, as did Utah, Brigham Young and Wyoming. (So many changes have been made that, while the WAC still exists, its senior current member, Northern Arizona, joined in 2004.) While Kush didn't win any of the WAC's 1st 7 titles, he kept ASU competitive.

In 1964, he recruited a running back from Cheltenham High School, just past the northern City Line of Philadelphia, giving him a scholarship. This young man would become Kush's most famous pupil. But he never played a down for Kush. How is that possible? Simple: Until 1972, NCAA rules prohibited freshman from playing varsity sports. And by the time this Sun Devil was a sophomore, an even more successful ASU coach, Bobby Winkles, had gotten him to switch to baseball. His name was Reggie Jackson.

In 1969, Kush was offered the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh. He accepted. Five days later, he changed his mind, and went back to Arizona State. It was a good move, as he set the Sun Devils on a path of winning 5 straight WAC titles (1969 to 1973), and 7 in 9 years (adding them in 1975 and 1977).

In 1978, they and Arizona left the WAC, and joined the Pacific-8 Conference, turning the Pac-8 into the Pac-10. (It's now the Pac-12.) Kush went 176-54-1 at ASU, and was named national Coach of the Year in 1975, going 12-0 and ending the season ranked Number 2 in the nation, although the weak WAC schedule denied them the National Championship.

In addition to the 9 league titles, he won the 1970 Peach Bowl, and the 1st 3 Fiesta Bowls, all on home soil, in 1971, '72 and '73. In 1978, he took his team to the Meadowlands for the inaugural Garden State Bowl. Rutgers wasn't so lucky on "home" "soil," as Arizona State beat them.

Kush coached 3 future Pro Football Hall-of-Famers: The aforementioned Curley Culp, a great defensive tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Oilers; Charley Taylor, receiver for the Washington Redskins, once the NFL's all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards; and Mike Haynes, one of the top defensive backs of his generation, a cornerback who starred for the New England Patriots and the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.

He also coached Dallas Cowboys quarterback Danny White, and San Diego Chargers and Green Bay Packers receiver John Jefferson. And he was one of the 1st college football coaches to recruit players of Samoan ethnicity, recognizing their size, speed and toughness.

On October 13, 1979, Kush was fired -- 3 hours before a game with the University of Washington. The previous month, Kevin Rutledge, a former punter, sued the school claiming physical and mental harassment, including Kush punching him in the mouth after a bad punt in the previous season's game with Washington. Kush was fired not for the allegations in the suit, but for interfering with the University's internal investigation of the allegations. This was just 10 months after Ohio State fired Woody Hayes for punching an opposing player during the 1978 Gator Bowl (and that was 2 months after the incident that Rutledge said happened).

Word of the suit got out, and, mirroring the Penn State fans' ugly defense of Joe Paterno in 2011, the insurance office of Rutledge's father suffered a suspicious fire, and the family's lawyer received 2 death threats.

Kush was allowed to coach the game on the day he was fired, and with a rabid crowd cheering them on, ASU won 12-7. His players carried him off the field. He ended his last season 3-2 --  and things got worse, as the NCAA ruled that he had used ineligible players, and had to forfeit his 3 wins. Eventually, the University cleared him, and a jury ruled in his favor in the suit.

*

In 1981, Kush coached the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football Legaue, getting them to the Eastern Conference Championship Game. After the season, he was hired by the Baltimore Colts. They went 0-8-1 in the strike-shortened in 1982 season.

That earned them the top pick in the 1983 NFL Draft, and they chose Stanford quarterback John Elway. But Elway -- perhaps convinced by his father, Jack, himself a college football coach -- refused to play for Kush, and forced a trade to the Denver Broncos. That doomed the Colts to a few more years of mediocrity. They moved to Indianapolis in 1984, and Kush quit toward the end of that season. They made the Playoffs only once until 1995 (in 1987).

Kush returned to the ASU campus by coaching the Arizona Outlaws of the United States Football League in 1985, but the league folded after "winning" its antitrust suit against the NFL, never playing a 1986 season.

Kush never coached again. He remained in Arizona, serving as director of the Arizona Boys Ranch, a "Boys Town" type of facility for the reform of juvenile offenders.

In 1995, he was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. The next year, a statue of him was dedicated outside Sun Devil Stadium, and the field inside was named Frank Kush Field. That night, ASU played Nebraska, then ranked Number 1 in America, and beat them 19-0. In 2000, ASU hired him as an assistant to the athletic director, essentially a fundraiser, at which he was rather successful, just by being Frank Kush.
He died this past Thursday, June 22, 2017, at the age of 88. His son Danny told the media that he'd been suffering from dementia. He was also survived by sons named David and Damian. He was predeceased by his wife, Frances.

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