On a blazing afternoon last week Arizona State Coach Frank Kush retreated into a cool back room of a Phoenix brewery for a buffet-and-beer bash hosted by the local press. After polishing off a plate of macaroni, chop suey and beef stroganoff, the stocky little coach took over the podium for a rehash of the Sun Devils' game against New Mexico the previous Saturday.
"I think," he said gloomily, "we were sluggish."
Sluggish? The room erupted in raucous, unbelieving laughter. "I know," Kush insisted. "It's hard to convince you but despite all the points we've been scoring we still have some offensive problems. Don't be fooled by those great runs." And don't be confused by the fact that in the "sluggish" encounter in question, Arizona State defeated New Mexico 67-24. Or that the undefeated Sun Devils set an ASU regular-season record with 709 yards in total offense. Or that they moved up to No. 11 in the national rankings. Or that they were averaging 45 points a game. Or that they are heavily favored to win their fifth straight Western Athletic Conference title this season. If Kush says his Sun Devils are sluggish, they are sluggish.
At ASU in Tempe, hard by Phoenix, Kush's preachments are not just revered, they are the holy writ, words to live by or else. Take the case of Wingback Morris Owens. After the weekly review of the game films—the "Sunday Afternoon Horror Show" the players call it—he was publicly chastised by Kush for breaking Frank's first commandment: Thou shalt play up to thy potential. And all the while Owens was under the impression that he had performed at least passably well by grabbing seven passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns.
October 21, 1973
All Kush saw was Owens dogging it on a blocking assignment and that was grounds for another lesson in "mental toughness." Says Kush, "I wouldn't lay into Morris if he weren't a potentially great receiver. I never criticize mediocre players." In softer moments, Kush admits to a more democratic approach: "I treat all my kids alike—bad." Or as they like to say at "Frank's Congenial Lager Emporium," a tavern frequented by the coaches and the most rabid fans this side of a Madrid bullring, "The punishing Polack doesn't like to brag on his team much."
Darryl Rogers sure does. Going into last week's game with ASU, the San Jose State coach professed that "there is no reason for us to believe that this Arizona State team is not the best in the past 10 years."
Kush, in fact, with a career record of 126-33-1, owns the highest winning percentage of any 10-year coach. Realizing that, Rogers allowed that his game plan would be to field 11 players plus two guys to hold up a tennis net across the San Jose goal line.
A moat might have worked better most of the night. All but one of ASU's home games are played in the relative cool of the evening lest opponents start calling the Sun Devils the Sun Strokes. San Jose was able to contain most of the men in the maroon jerseys but those flashes of White and Green finally did them in. All-America Woody Green, who conjures memories of Gale Sayers, ran 160 yards to set a new career conference rushing record with a total of 3,024 yards. Quarterback Danny White was his usual versatile self, calling audibles 60% of the time, passing for one touchdown, running for another and ripping off one punt that traveled 77 yards. The final score was Arizona State 28, San Jose 3. Kush's analysis: "Disappointing." For him, that amounted to a rave review. Poor-mouthing, an acquired affliction with most coaches, is congenital with Kush. His system—teaching discipline through adversity—is rooted back in the chilly hill country of Windber, Pa., where he was the fifth of 15 children born to his Polish immigrant parents.
"We were lucky," Kush recalls. "In the winter, when the temperatures dropped to 20 below and you could see the snow coming through cracks in the house, we could keep relatively warm because we slept six kids to a bed."
His coal-miner father died when Frank was 14 and he was forced to go to work as a railroad gandy dancer for 63¢ an hour. His stint as a junior John Henry was hard, he recalls, but it kept him out of mines and helped turn him into a steely little All-State guard in high school.
"Until you've felt starvation," Kush says of his formative years, "you really can't explain how it toughens you for accepting responsibility." Nevertheless he tried, oh how he has tried, practically from the day he left Michigan State, where he was a 170-pound All-America middle guard with Biggie Munn's 1952 national champions.
"I wasn't really that good," says Kush. "I was what you would call an aggressive individual." Nobody doubted that when, after serving as an assistant at ASU for three years, he replaced Dan Devine to become, at 28, one of the youngest head coaches in the country.
In his very first season, while en route to a game against Detroit, he became irritated with "a bunch of fatheaded seniors screwing around." So, during a three-hour layover in Kansas City, he led his team onto a high school baseball diamond and held "one hell of a scrimmage." Stunned, the Sun Devils reboarded their flight and then took it out on Detroit the next day with a 27-6 upset victory. In 1963, when ASU was humbled 33-13 by an underdog Wichita team in the opening game of the season, he reassembled his players on a practice field after the game and held another get-serious scrimmage that battered on until one a.m. "We didn't lose another game that season," Kush says proudly.
ASU did almost lose Woody Green. "When I came here as a freshman," he says, "and saw Coach Kush whacking guys on the helmet with a stick and making them run up Mount Kush for missing a block, I said, 'Wow, man, this dude is crazy.' " Mount Kush, a kind of a mini-Matterhorn, is at Camp Tontozona, a pine-tree retreat that is perhaps the most infamous training camp in football.
"It's tough even walking up Mount Kush," says Danny White.
Due to a lack of national TV exposure and the fact that the night scheduling prevents most newspapers from reporting their scores, the Sun Devils are not exactly a household word outside the Mountain Time Zone. But for the men who tell time with stopwatches—the pro scouts—ASU is a must stop. Over the past decade no fewer than 91 ASU grads—Charley Taylor, Travis Williams, Curley Culp, Fair Hooker, J. D. Hill. Steve Holden, et al.—have gone on to be drafted by the bigs.
Most prized are the ASU running backs, a band of fleet-foots who are taught to hit the hole, says Kush, "as fast as the snap of a finger." "We fly, baby, fly," says the offensive backfield coach, Don Baker, of a wide-open offense that is vintage Biggie Munn in overdrive. Baker, who suits up for practice in a floppy black cowboy hat that makes him look like an undernourished Gabby Hayes, plays the fun-loving rowdy to Kush's sobersided straight man.
At 44, Kush has found his place in the sun in a land where no kid's father dies of "coal-miner's asthma." In recent years he has turned down head-coaching offers from the University of Pittsburgh as well as from the Green Bay Packers and the Denver Broncos. He has helped put four of his younger brothers through ASU, and Danny Kush, the eldest of his three sons, is currently a kicking specialist with the Sun Devils.
"My future is in Arizona," says Kush, and whenever he has any doubts he takes off and runs alone through the desert for 10 miles or so to sort things out. Out there, he says, padding along up hills and along hard-baked riverbeds, scattering jackrabbits and quail, he "finds out how much my kids can take by finding out how much I can take." Of such stuff and steel-drivin' men are winning teams made.