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.