Humpty Dumpty put together again

Kush at halftime ceremonies on October 29.

Frank Kush was the winningest football coach in the history of Arizona State University, an admirable record established over almost 22 seasons.

All by himself, by the dint of his strong personality and belief in his coaching techniques, he brought this once little teachers college in Tempe to national prominence in the 1970s.  He is still revered by the masses in Arizona and affectionately known as the Old Man.

But for all his glory on the football field, Kush’s greatest achievement has been the resurrection of an image soiled 32 years ago.

In 1979 and already a legend in these parts, Kush was fired by the very university that had benefited so much from the fruits of his labor.

ASU had little choice in the matter.  There was mounting evidence that Kush was trying to cover-up an alleged misdeed that occurred the year before during a game at the University of Washington.  The misdeed, a punch to the face of punter Kevin Rutledge on the sidelines, resulted in the player filing a $1.1 million lawsuit against Kush, the school and the state board of regents.   If left unresolved, the coverup could’ve led to additional lawsuits for the university, not to mention criminal charges for obstruction of justice.

The firing came just hours before a home game, and in one of the most bizarre happenings in the history of sports, Kush was allowed to take the field as coach.

It was a game so electrifying, the fans’ anger at such a high pitch over the firing, that only a World Series seventh game could match it for intensity.  Two Sun Devil players, Gary Bouck and Bryan Caldwell,  who were innocently swept up in the lawsuit, were shamefully booed by the team’s own fans every time their names were mentioned over the public address system.  In the end, ASU won the game, and Kush was hoisted onto the shoulders of some of his players and carried off the field as fans cheered.  An entire state, it seemed, had turned rabid, gone berserk over an issue hardly any of them took time to understand.

In little time, so heated was the controversy that other heads began to roll.  Fred Miller, the athletic director and one-time Kush friend and business partner who had fired the Old Man, was himself axed.  And school president, John Schwada, who supported Miller on the issue, eventually bit the dust as well.

But it was not only the coverup that emerged.

The story went viral, bringing national attention and repugnance to Kush’s coaching methods.   It became clear to anyone who didn’t already know it, that Kush’s winning record was built on fear, intimidation and brutality.

And then the program’s academic cheating scandal broke.   Players who faced ineligibilty for poor grades were enrolled in a summer extension course in Los Angeles.  The extension course was run by Rocky Mountain College, a small Montana school with virtually no oversight.  A story in the Arizona Republic revealed the course existed in name only, that classes were never held and that players were given good grades without turning a tap.  Kush claimed he didn’t know about it, and the “academic adviser,” John Rehfield, took the bullet and was rewarded with a good job elsewhere.

Many other accusations, some sordid in nature, came up in voluminous depositions taken at the time of the lawsuit from assistant coaches and players, depositions barred by law from seeing the light of day.

But there was Kush last weekend being celebrated again by ASU three decades after his fall from grace.

It was halftime of Arizona State University’s homecoming football game with Colorado, and the Old Man, now 82, stood once more, maybe for the last time, on the playing field he’d turned into hallowed ground for the Sun Devils’ faithful.  There was a slight smile on his face as he listened to the accolades as the day’s festivities wound down, no doubt feeling he was now fully vindicated of any wrong doing.  He’d been honored earlier in the day at something called ASU Legends Luncheon, surrounded by former players, coaches, officials, friends and fans.

Some of the players he brutalized and debased, players who once hated him, now said they love him.  Danny White, the former quarterback who played with the NFL Dallas Cowboys, was one of them.  He was seen on TV saying Kush was now more like a “father figure” to him.

The resurrection of Frank Kush came slowly but steadily.

Even after his coaching demise at ASU, the football coaching brotherhood had made sure Kush landed on his feet.  He coached in the Canadian Football League, and then caught a job with the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL.  His popularity was still so high among fans in Arizona, that the local United States Football League team hired him away from the Colts, hoping to build their attendance and give credence to their ill-fated NFL ambitions.

In 1995, Kush got on a roll.  He was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame.  A year later, ASU jumped in line and named that hallowed ground at its football stadium, Frank Kush Field.  In 2000, Kush was officially hired by the school who had once sent him packing.  He was named Assistant to the Athletic Director, his duties to raise funds for the athletic program.

How was this amazing resurrection achieved?   Kush had a base of loyal cronies, some of them wealthy and influential donors to ASU, who put pressure on the university to amend its view of the Old Man.  The state’s timid media refused to buck the public’s misplaced adoration and let the old transgressions fade.

And of course there was the money.  Frank Kush’s name was golden.  If you had the Old Man on your side, you could raise money for witchcraft.  ASU could use some of that magic.

And now last weekend, the final touch to a remarkable turnaround.

It was as if history was expunged, justice thwarted and morality capsized.  Not even the villainous President, Richard Nixon, could change his low spot in history the way Frank Kush has his.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men did indeed put Humpty Dumpty together again.


A walk in the park and the “lost” Japanese woman

Looking east from the park, Four Peaks looms in the distance

The thing about hiking is this.  You never know what you’re going to meet up with along the trail.  It could be bad.  It could be good.  Yesterday it was good.

It was that time of year, at long last, in the arid lands.  The heat had departed, cooler air prevailed and hikers, bikers and joggers re-appeared in larger numbers along the trails of North Mountain Park in Phoenix.

The park is a gem of a place, an oasis of natural beauty surrounded on all sides by look-alike homes and an exclusive resort on a hilltop.  Yet in the park you can travel three miles or maybe even six in the inner basins and see no more in two hours than 50 people.  Usually a lot less.  And, when, like late yesterday afternoon, a rain storm begins to slip in from the south, the experience of being there borders on therapeutic.  A light shower nudges from the numerous creosote the most pleasant aroma imaginable.

Add to that the color and majesty of in-coming clouds at dusk and you have something akin to paradise.

Christiansen Trail pointing to North Mountain

I set out from the Visitors Center about 4:30 with my usual gear.  A camera and notebook.  Immediately I heard the thunder of footsteps and stood aside as 10 American Indian boys whizzed by shirtless and in shorts, obviously a cross-country team in training.  They came upon me so quickly that I was unable to shoot a photo of what to me is a rare sight in the park.  They were all serious, on the fast track to whatever transient goal they seek.

My usual route carries me through what I call the inner basin between the two highest points in the park, North Mountain on the southeast corner and Shaw Butte on the northwest.  They are small as mountains go, just over 2,000 feet elevation and rise about 600 feet above the hilly terrain below.

The inner basin is really two basins, an east and a west, separated by a divide spanning the two peaks.  The east is the most popular one, it being nearest the Visitors Center and a large paved parking lot.  I’ve done the east one a lot, idly walking along a jeep trail through a desertscape of mostly creosote and small palo verde trees with a smattering of cactus and young saguaro.  But seeing the large number of cars in the lot, I decide to hike over to the paved trail that leads up to the summit of North Mountain with its disgusting cellphone towers, a distance of about 1.4 miles.  It seemed a relaxing aftermath to a sumptuous meal at my favorite buffet.

A storm approaches the park from the south.

As I approached a ridge that stands 100 feet above busy 7th Street, I stopped to take a photo of the inner basin.  It was then that a Japanese woman approached.  She wore black pants and shirt and a cap I can no long remember.  She looked to be in her 60s, hiking alone.  I had seen her on the other side, down the trail about 100 feet, poring over printed material.  I assumed she was lost.

“Can you tell me how to get to the 100 trail?” she asked, walking right up to me.  The “100” is the Christiansen Trail that runs not only through the park but meanders on maybe 10 more miles through the mountain preserves to the east side of Phoenix, near its border with Scottsdale.  The woman said she was trying to get to 7th Avenue and Cheryl, south of the park, to catch a city bus back to wherever she was staying.  I eyeballed her map and gave her the directions.  With a pleasant “thank you” she headed west down the trail I’d just come up.

One of the park's older saguaros.

The encounter was amazing in a way.  Here you have this older woman hiking alone in a remote area of a country not her own, and stopping to ask directions from an absolute stranger, a person much larger than she, all without a hint of fear.  So unlike Americans, particularly women, who seem so afraid and cautious they will refuse to say hi, nod or even look your way as  you pass them on the trail, their minds I suppose cluttered with thoughts of murder, of rape and mutilation.  This Japanese woman, whoever she was, did a powerful PR job on me.  My admiration of the Japanese culture shot up a notch.  I’ve noticed too this same openness and fearlessness in European hikers.  It’s depressing to see Americans so afraid, so aloof, so tense, so trying to be cool and overly safe, trying to protect their children from stranger-danger that you begin to wonder if the U.S.A. has totally lost its courage, been changed forever, probably by 9/11, and it can not avert a downward spiral into hellish zones of a Third World nation.  I think our ancestors would be disappointed of what they could see now.

An ocotillo stands tall as rain approaches.

Storm clouds began to swoop in as I returned to the Visitors Center.   I pass more hikers, staring straight ahead like zombies.  Maybe it’s me, I wonder.  I certainly don’t have that puppy-dog look.  But I grew up in a small Kansas town where almost everyone would say hello or raise a finger off the steering wheel in recognition as we passed.  I refuse to forget those days.  I will not act like the suburbanites that have barricaded themselves in their homes or within gated walls, alone and comfortable, so untrusting, so insulated from reality.  I suppose that’s why “reality” TV shows are so popular now.

I sit down in front of the Visitors Center, make a few notes after checking the pedometer.  5,750 steps or about 2.75 miles, time 5:55.  I had been out almost an hour and a half and yet it did not seem that long at all.  More important, it had been an exhilarating hike with the clouds rolling in.  Just being there.  And the “lost” Japanese woman had helped make it that way.  I trust she found her way home and enjoyed her outing as much as I had mine.

When the magic died

I’ve waited a week for the magic to return.  But it has not, and I am now convinced as far as Arizona’s voodoo baseball team is concerned, it is gone for the year.  Maybe forever.  There was a time I almost believed the gods would over-turn that final Diamondbacks’ loss in the playoffs, 3-2 in 10 innings, to the Milwaukee Brewers on a technicality.

But magic being magic, fickle thing, it oozed away into another corner, as it always does.  Magic is restless.  It never sits still.  Just when you think it’s yours, poof, it’s goes away.  It had long overstayed its limit in Arizona, providing the good fortune that led to a near unbelievable 48 come-from-behind victories in regular season.   That’s more than half of the 94 games won.  Many of these rallies came in dramatic fashion from the team’s lesser lights, some of whom failed to even finish the season on the Dbacks’ roster.  Willy Mo Pena and Brandon Allen to name a few.  That was the magic of it all.  A few such magical moments are understandable but a preponderance of them is, well, unreal.

I can remember the exact moment when the magic left the Diamondbacks during that final Game 5 in Milwaukee, though it was not until later that I realized it.

That moment came in the 8th inning and Ryan Roberts was at bat with the bases loaded, two out, the Dbacks down, 2-1.  Though not nearly so talented as right fielder Justin Upton, it was Roberts, the tattooed third baseman known as Tatman and the most intense player you can imagine, who was the heart and soul of the Dbacks this season.  Roberts was Mr. Clutch.  He’d hit game winners and started rallies so many times you began to take him for a sure-thing.

Who could forget the Dodgers game a week before?  That’s when Roberts hit a walk-off grand slam to win the game with two out in the 9th.  That slam, to me anyway, was emblematic of this entire improbable season.  Roberts rounded the bases in joy, pumping an arm in imitation of the famous home run hit many years ago by the team’s manager, Kirk Gibson.

That’s how I felt in the 8th inning.   Roberts would deliver as usual.  He was 31 years old, playing as a regular for the first time in his career.  He hadn’t even made the roster during spring training and was sent down to Reno in the minors.  And now the baseball fairy was about to sprinkle more magic dust on him.

But this time I was wrong, and Roberts didn’t come through.  He bounced an 0-2 pitch to the shortstop who forced the runner at second base, ending the inning.  And although the Dbacks rallied in the 9th to tie, I felt something had changed.  Roberts was taken out of the game in the top of the 9th and could only watch as Nyjer Morgan began his fateful swing that scored the speedy Carlos Gomez from second to win the series and send the stunned Dbacks home until 2012.

It was clear.  The Brewers dodged so many bullets in that game.  They should’ve lost but didn’t.  The magic, and that’s what it was, rested in their corner.

I had a debate on a message board with a hot-eyed Dbacks fan who wanted to believe his team was loaded with talent, that it was all about “hard work and determination.”   It was obvious he did not believe in magic.   He summed up Roberts’s grand slam against the Dodgers in two words.  Hanging slider.  I did not know what the pitch was that Roberts hit that night, but I was sure of one thing.  There must be thousands of “hanging sliders” thrown in the course of a season, bad pitches that go for outs.  Or maybe they are fouled off, whiffed or taken without a swing.  Not every bad pitch by any stretch of imagination is hit out of the ballpark.  But Roberts connected on this bad pitch in the biggest way possible.   A special moment so it seemed that had nothing to do with talent, hard work or determination.  Given that same pitch, Babe Ruth may’ve popped out or singled.

I don’t have much patience with those who believe there is no magic in baseball or in life.  If you don’t believe things are out of your hands, then I think you miss the point of being here on this planet.  And I doubt the magic that sank its roots deeply into Arizona soil for several months will return anytime soon.

The Dbacks will have to play next season on their own.  The divine moments have passed.

The Chilean miners: Heroes no more — just like Ira Hayes

Does anyone know what a “hero” is anymore?   It is so blurred that almost anyone qualifies.   The “hero” mania is driven mainly by the media in their attempts to do feel-good stories and thereby build up ratings and circulation numbers.  It has little to do with reality.

The Phoenix television station, KPNX, Channel 12, styles itself as “Hero Central.”  The station’s segment last night made a “hero” of a 98-year-old man who volunteers for charity work.  In real life, he is no hero.  He is only an elderly man bored to the gills and it gives him something to do.   As it has done with “hero,” KPNX has taken “silliness”  to new heights.

I may have missed it, but I believe Channel 12 carried nothing of the New York Times story today about the plights of the once-heroic Chilean miners.  But why should it?  It’s such a damper on the “hero” mania that puts more money in its pocket.   You would think the station could look back on Arizona’s own World War II “hero,” Ira Hayes, and learn the lesson that bestowing “hero” on anyone is often underseved and a curse.

Just like Hayes, those 33 miners trapped last year in the San Jose Mine, soon fell on bad times, their official status as global heroes now a distant memory.

“One year after their globally televised rescue, after the worldwide spotlight faded and the trips and offers have dwindled,” the New York Times reported today, “the miners say that most of them are unemployed and that many are poorer than before.”

Two grind out a living by selling fruits and vegetables, the Times said.  Many are being treated for psychological and substance abuse problems.   Only four have returned to mining jobs.

Unlike those miners who were at the wrong place at the wrong time, Hayes seemingly was at the right place at the right time.  He was one of the six U.S. soldiers seen raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima in early 1945.  The moment was caught by photographer Joe Rosenthal.  The photo won a Pulitzer Prize, and Hayes and his buddies returned to the U.S. as heroes.  Hayes and others toured the country, a part of the government’s P.R. program to sell the war.  Hayes even became the subject of a movie, The Outsider, starring Tony Curtis.

But Hayes, who grew up near Bapchule on the Pima Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, was never comfortable with his role as “hero.”  He became an alcoholic and died just 10 years after the flag-raising, in January of 1955.  His body was found lying on the ground, dead of exposure to the elements.

Ira Hayes was no hero.  Famous, yes, but no hero.  He was just another soldier who happened to appear atop Suribachi because that’s what he was ordered to do.   And it was the second flag-raising, not the first.  Same for the miners.  They only did what any normal person would do in a bad situation.  They were resourceful and tried to keep their spirits going.  Some did better than others.

It is a sad truth:  If everyone is a hero, then, really, there are no heroes at all.

Amanda Knox: Another disgusting American fairy tale

Unlike most Americans, I find the hoopla over Amanda Knox’s homecoming another sickening display of media hype.  Knox, in case you have spent a lot of time recently in another galaxy, is the young American woman who along with her Italian boyfriend was wrongly convicted of having a role in the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, four years ago.   She was freed by an Italian appeals court yesterday and arrived back home today, in Seattle, in one of those disgusting spectacles you can only find these days in America.  To watch this over-wrought moment, you might have thought the war on terror was over or that the economic crisis has been mended and people are going back to work.

To see the grinning Cheshire face of Terry Moran, the Nightline anchor, as he reported the homecoming tonight, was enough to cause me to pickup and leave my comfortable spot in front of the TV.  I didn’t gag, but I should’ve tried.

While Knox has been freed on the grounds there was not enough evidence available during the trial to convict her of murder, it does not mean, at least in my mind, she is exonerated.   Only the three participants know what happened that night in Perugia and none is talking.  For all, we know Knox played  a big role in the murder.  Maybe someday the truth will emerge.  It is all smoke and mirrors now.

Just think about it.  Would a wallflower from Fargo, daughter of a poor, illiterate farm family been so fortunate to attract the media attention to keep this miscarriage of justice before the world for four long years?  I think not.  In the end, the Fargo girl would have rotted in prison.  It was the beguiling good looks of Amanda,  aka Foxy Knoxy,  that started the media ball rolling downhill.  The perseverance of Amanda’s family and friends also stirred the media’s interest and soon we had a global story on our hands.  The Knox family used the media to set Amanda free.  And the media used the family to get what they wanted, those giant audience ratings that keep their coffers bulging.

And don’t worry about the Knox family’s financial woes.  That will soon improve.  A book deal worth millions is just around the bend.

So what we have is this.  A minor event in history has stolen the show.  Gullible Americans are the suckers.  In the meantime shallow media minds have let the important news of this country lay hidden for decades, fearful of what corporations might do with their advertising dollars.   There is no end in sight how low the media can stoop.   The Amanda Knox fairy tale is only the lastest example in a long line.