PHOENIX — Frank Kush, the most famous coach in Arizona State history and synonymous with the school’s rise from a college to a university, died early Thursday, a school spokesman confirmed.
Kush was ASU’s football coach from 1958-79, winning a school-record 176 games, and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He was 88.
Kush, an All-America defensive lineman for national champion Michigan State in 1952, came to ASU as an assistant coach under Dan Devine in 1955, then was promoted to coach when Devine left for Missouri. He had a winning record in 19 of 22 seasons, including undefeated teams in 1970 and ’75, the latter finishing a school-best No. 2 nationally in the final Associated Press poll.
Kush’s ASU coaching career ended in controversy when he was fired early in the 1979 season, stemming from charges by punter Kevin Rutledge, who said Kush shook his face mask and punched him during a 1978 game. Eventually some players supported Rutledge’s claim and some assistant coaches said they were asked to lie to cover up the incident, and the Kush era ended after he was carried onto the field for his 231st and final game at ASU.
The fallout from Kush’s dismissal was extensive. Athletic Director Fred Miller was fired in early 1980, and later that year ASU was placed on two-year NCAA probation with a one-year postseason ban in ’81 for a lengthy list of violations that occurred late in the Kush era. Lawsuits related to the Kush-Rutledge incident continued until 1986.
“The way it all ended is one of those things in our society,” Kush said in late 2008. “I didn’t do anything wrong. There’s no regrets. It’s something to talk about, and the less said, the best said. The growth of the institution, the growth of the state. I was fortunate to be part of that. I’m not necessarily saying I was the reason for it. I benefitted from it. There’s more positive than negative.”
Kush moved on to professional football, coaching Hamilton in the Canadian Football League in 1981, then the NFL’s Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts from 1982-84 and the USFL’s Arizona Outlaws in 1985.
In 1983 the Colts drafted Stanford quarterback John Elway with the first overall selection, but he did not want to play for Kush or Colts owner Robert Irsay. Using his baseball ability as leverage, Elway forced a trade to the Denver Broncos.
“That was old man Irsay’s decision,” Kush said in 2008. “I’m sure he (Elway) didn’t want to play for the Colts. If that included Frank Kush, that’s his opinion.”
After the USFL folded, Kush became director of the Arizona Boys Ranch, starting on a path that brought him back to ASU. The field at Sun Devil Stadium was named in his honor in 1996 during what turned into one of the more- famous games in school history, a 19-0 victory over two-time defending national champion Nebraska.
In 2000 Kush was hired as a special assistant to the ASU athletic director. He remained a part of the athletic department in a Sun Devil Club development role for the rest of his life. A large bronze statue of Kush kneeling on a football was unveiled in 1997 at the south entrance to Sun Devil Stadium, a facility that opened in Kush’s first season as coach in 1958 and grew to seat more than 70,000.
Kush joined with Arizona State College administrators in traveling the state to lobby for support of Proposition 200, changing a school at that time with fewer than 10,000 students to a university. ASU is now the largest U.S. university with more than 60,000 enrolled on its Tempe campus.
“I had come from Michigan State, and in 1950 there was no opposition to it (becoming a university) whatsoever,” Kush said 50 years after the proposition passed in 1958. “But here the president of University of Arizona and his deans were saying there should only be one university in the state. I thought to myself, ‘These are supposed to be educated people.’ I don’t know if the word is hatred, but I have animosity towards UA. I think our guys were more scared of losing to them because of me than they were of losing the game.”
Kush’s teams won 16 of 21 Territorial Cup games against Arizona (including nine in a row from 1965-73), won nine conference championships and were 6-1 in bowl games. ASU moved from the Western Athletic Conference to the Pac-12 Conference during the Kush era.
One of 15 children, Kush grew up in the coal-mining town of Windber, Pa. His disciplinarian father was from Poland.
“He gave you responsibilities, he made you accountable,” Kush said. “If you goofed up, there were consequences.”
Some of the prominent players under Kush were consensus All-Americans Ron Pritchard, Woody Green, Mike Haynes, John Jefferson, Al Harris and Mike Richardson plus quarterbacks Danny White, Mike Pagel, Mark Malone, Dennis Sproul and Joe Spagnola.Kush was inducted into the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame in 1989. His wife, Frances, died at age 80 in 2010. The Kush family included three sons: Dan, David and Damian. Dan Kush was a kicker at ASU from 1973-76.