Greg Hansen: Miner's son turned ASU into gold

2011-08-20T00:00:00Z 2011-08-20T13:52:56Z Greg Hansen: Miner's son turned ASU into goldGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 20, 2011 12:00 am  • 

In celebration of Arizona's centennial, the Star is featuring our picks for the 100 best athletes, moments and teams. Throughout the summer, we have been showcasing our list - with the first 90 in no particular order.

Starting today, Greg Hansen will choose his top 10, with a column on each.

FRANK KUSH

Released from military service in 1955, Frank Kush drove from Fort Benning, Ga., to Tempe and accepted a $3,600 salary to be the line coach at Arizona State College.

Kush was a 26-year-old Michigan State grad with a wife, an infant son and no idea what he had gotten himself into. Arizona? Where's that?

He stopped to ask a police officer directions to campus. "You just passed it," the officer said.

A few hours later, Kush had given ASC the once-over. The old football stadium seated 13,000. Mill Avenue of the 1950s was like something out of "The Andy Griffith Show." The student union, he remembers, looked like spartan military barracks. He asked himself, "Can this be it?"

Twenty years later, Kush was "it." The irascible football coach became the state's most prominent man, or if not, second to Barry Goldwater. Sun Devil Stadium seated 72,000 and sold out. Kush declined coaching offers from, among others, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, and had become the Father of the Fiesta Bowl, created to accommodate his success.

Kush was as feared as he was famous.

The Sun Devils were 176-54-1 during his reign and 16-5 against Arizona. He remains, 32 years after his resignation, the most daunting athletic opponent in UA history.

After ASU became a Top 25 program in the 1970s, a Time magazine story detailing his behind-the-scenes demeanor was slyly titled, "When Kush Came to Shove."

"He hit me with pipes, boards and a ship's rope," former player Steve Chambers told the magazine.

Few seemed to care what it took for the Sun Devils to remain a football power, which included a 13-1 record against Arizona from 1965 to 1978. Kush was wildly popular, the face of Arizona State University, a coal miner's son from Windber, Pa., who produced undefeated teams in 1970 and 1975, chopping up national powers along the way.

When he was fired early in the 1979 season, alleged to have lied about punching a Sun Devil punter in the chin, Kush was carried off the field after ASU stunned the Washington Huskies as the crowd chanted, "We Want Kush!"

Frank Kush was 50. So much had come and gone with such suddenness that his exit became an irresistible story.

The legend left Tempe in disgrace, first selling metal detectors, before coaching again in the Canadian League, the USFL and the NFL, where he led the Colts for three years.

By 1990, he had come to peace with ASU. It was clear Kush wasn't the ogre he had been said to be. Rather, he was an old-school disciplinarian during an age when college football had no limitations on scholarships, practice hours, meeting time, and few people looking over your shoulder.

His was the biggest game in town before, and even after Phoenix became a big town. The two enabled one another.

"I stayed here because I felt I was a part of the institution," Kush said in a 1995 oral history with the Tempe History Museum. "Two or three months after I was fired, I'm sure I pinched myself and said, 'Hey, this is a bad dream.' But it really wasn't, and that was the end of it."

The odds of Kush ever being at the center of such a divisive storm were overwhelmingly against it.

He was the fifth of 15 kids of a Polish coal miner who didn't speak English and lived in poverty in a $9-a-month company rental. His father, Alexander, died of coal miner's asthma when Frank was 14. Driven to escape mining, Frank became a diligent student who earned a football scholarship, first to Washington and Lee College in Virginia and then Michigan State. "Until you've felt starvation," Kush told Sports Illustrated in 1968, "you really can't explain how it toughens you for accepting responsibility."

At ASU, Kush succeeded Dan Devine in 1958 and implemented a program styled by his toughness and never-give-an-inch persona. "I'm sure I grabbed face masks to get the kids' attention," he said in his oral history. "But as far as punching a player, no. I never punched a player."

The man who had grown up sleeping six to a bed in a shotgun house with no electricity and no hot water, was at his best against Arizona. It was the Game of the Year in this state, and remains that way, but not to the emotional extent of the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

If there is any lasting bitterness, it doesn't show.

By 1996, ASU dedicated Sun Devil Stadium and named a portion of it "Frank Kush Field," and today he's in the athletic department, a legend-in-residence, available for fundraising, consulting and memories of the good, old days.

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