There have been many college football scandals over the years, some involving widespread subversion of the rule book. But few of them have caused as much of an uproar as the unseemly succession of events that culminated on Oct. 13 in the sacking of Arizona State Coach Frank Kush. It is a sorry epic, a kind of Cactus Horror Yahoo Show, that raises urgent—and all too familiar—questions about college football in general. Is any coach bigger than his school's athletic program? Should backers dictate policy to a university as a condition of their financial contributions? And for whose benefit is intercollegiate football played anyway?
Kush, the 50-year-old taskmaster who is at the center of the storm, compiled a 176-54-1 record during 21½ years at Arizona State and became, in the manner of successful football coaches everywhere, a folk hero in Sun Devil country. One of 15 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Kush made All-America as a scrappy 170-pound defensive guard on Michigan State's 1952 national champions, and as a coach he tried to instill the same combativeness in his players. He slapped helmets, kicked butts, yanked face masks, doled out punishment laps up a 500-foot hillock known as Mount Kush and, according to what a former player, Mike Tomco, once told a reporter, stomped on players' hands. A former Arizona State player, Steve Chambers, has told TIME, "He's hit me with pipes, boards and a ship's rope." Through it all, Kush said, "My job is to win football games, put people in the stadium and make money for the university."
Kush understood his job well. Because he produced winning teams that used a crowd-pleasing big-play offense, few people complained about his excesses. Certainly not the school's administration, which never publicly admonished him for his heavy-handed tactics, and certainly not the Sun Angel Foundation, a booster organization of 4,500 members, most of them well-heeled local businessmen. The organization was founded in 1946 to help put Arizona State, then a small school in a sleepy part of the country, on the map. There were some setbacks, notably in 1959, Kush's second year as head coach, when Arizona State was placed on a two-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations involving overzealous boosters. But the Sun Devils prospered on the field, and the school is today very much on the map; as of last year it became a member of the powerful Pac-10. The Sun Angels have fueled the school's growing prowess by contributing $2.5 million over the years to athletic scholarships and $4.5 million toward the expansion of Sun Devil Stadium, from 33,000 to 71,000 seats. They also have frequently shown their appreciation to Kush, throwing dinners in his honor and once giving him a new station wagon.
It was in this climate of genial indulgence that an Arizona State punter named Kevin Rutledge began stirring up a fuss. The uproar started after Rutledge shanked a kick during a 41-7 loss to Washington last season. While this was one of the Sun Devils' lesser sins during an altogether abysmal performance, it infuriated Kush. Rutledge says that when he returned to the sideline, Kush grabbed his helmet, shook it from side to side and unloaded a punch under the face mask that caught Rutledge in the mouth. Rutledge, whom Kush never called on to punt again, also claims that Kush and two assistant coaches, William Maskill and Gary Horton, conspired to humiliate, ridicule and embarrass him in front of his teammates as part of a concerted effort to make him quit football and, thus, surrender his athletic scholarship.
October 29, 1979
Through an attorney, Robert Hing, Rutledge told all this to Arizona State's board of regents. But Kush denied the allegations, and the board rejected the player's complaint. Rutledge transferred to Nevada-Las Vegas, and on Sept. 21 filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against Kush, the two assistant coaches, Athletic Director Fred Miller, the university and its board of regents. The next day an insurance agency in Gilbert, Ariz. owned by Kevin's father, Gordon, burned to the ground. It was listed as arson. The Rutledges then received a call from an unidentified man who said, "You just got a taste last night of what's going to happen if you don't drop this suit." Another caller threatened to shoot family members and blow up their house. The Rutledges also received menacing letters, including one filled with razor blades, and Kevin's brother, Robert, a defensive back at Gilbert High, grew fearful and began playing under an assumed name.
At first university officials said little about the suit, one of 13, as it happens, in which various members of the Rutledge family have been involved over the past decade. But then, two weeks ago, three hours before Arizona State would play Washington in Tempe, Kush unloaded a bombshell. He called a press conference and announced that he was going to be canned as football coach. "I am told the reason I am being fired is that Dr. Miller did not believe me when I denied punching Kevin Rutledge," he said. Kush added that he had taken a lie detector test, "and it proved I have been completely truthful." Miller let Kush coach the Washington game, and in what probably ranks as a college football first he was carried onto the field by his team, which proceeded to avenge last year's rout with a 12-7 upset victory. Then Kush was carried off the field.
On Monday, in a press conference of his own, Miller elucidated the reasons for the firing, chief among them being his allegation that Kush had attempted to cover up the alleged punching of Rutledge by encouraging his players and assistants to lie, if necessary, about the matter. Two days later Miller showed reporters sworn statements from five players and five assistant coaches attesting to the existence of such a cover-up. Offensive Backfield Coach Don Baker said in his deposition, "The coach said, 'Things are getting tough. We better close the circle, and we might have to lie, steal or cheat.' " And Offensive Line Coach Bob Karmelowicz quoted Kush as saying, "We are all in this together. If I go, we all go. We have got to make sure our stories are right, the same. Don't worry about perjuring yourself." Three players, Chambers, Gary Bouck and Bryan Caldwell, claimed to have seen Kush punch Rutledge.
If Miller seriously expected this accumulation of evidence to cool the passions that were building in Kush's behalf in Phoenix, he was sorely mistaken. It quickly became apparent that the majority of Arizona State fans simply wanted Kush to go on coaching their football team, regardless of what transgressions he may have committed, KEEP KUSH T shirts suddenly appeared, as did bumper stickers reading I LOVE GOD AND FRANK KUSH, and the Arizona Republic ran a limerick by reader Jaema Gomez:
Accusers now lurk in the bushes,
Here's hoping they fall on their tushes;
For if there's a coach,
Above all reproach,
We all know that ASU's Kush is.
For Bob Owens, whom Miller had elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach, last week was a nightmare. Owens' family was threatened by an anonymous caller, and his 11-year-old daughter had to be taken out of school because of cruel gibes from classmates. Just to be safe, police checked his car for bombs. Just to be safer, Owens stopped driving the car. Owens also was assigned a bodyguard, who remained at his side all week.
But it was Miller who probably received the most hate mail, obscene calls and public abuse. He was assailed by a man who could severely damage the Sun Devil athletic program if he carries out his stated intentions. The man: Harry Rosenzweig, a Phoenix jeweler and former Republican state chairman. His role: longtime president of the Sun Angel Foundation. In yet another press conference, Rosenzweig called for the firing of Miller and the reinstatement of Kush, and announced that the flow of Sun Angel money would be shut off until those demands were met.
"The executive board of the Sun Angels, people interested in sports and community leaders, cannot stand by and let this occur without violent protest to the absence of due process in this whole matter," Rosenzweig said. "We cannot anticipate the effect the removal of Frank Kush as head football coach will have on fan participation, recruitment of athletes and our financial ability to aid the university. Therefore, we are suspending plans to build the ASU golf course, and we cannot consider completion of the south end zone of the ASU Stadium, which would have brought it to 86,000 seats. Our ability to complete payment for the latest stadium improvement has been jeopardized." Rosenzweig, who put a $1.8 million price tag on the two suspended projects, added that Miller and Arizona State President John Schwada had a "duty," which they had ignored, to "consult with the powers that be, including the Sun Angel Foundation, before creating this fiasco."
Arizona politicians also threatened to hit the university in its pocketbook. One state legislator, Peter Corpstein, said he told Schwada that Miller's salary and funds for the athletic department would be cut from the next state budget unless Miller got the ax. Another, Tony West, a member of the Arizona House Appropriations Committee, threatened that school officials would encounter an obstacle when they seek money next year, because, "they won't have anyone carrying their banner around here."
The Arizona State student body was notably less agitated by Kush's ouster. While the students certainly like it when the Sun Devils win, they are often less vociferous about the victories than the team's adult boosters. And the seats allocated to undergraduates, most of which are in the north end zone, indicate that Arizona State's program is more closely geared to fulfilling the wishes of the Sun Angels and other Phoenix-area businessmen, who, among them, lay claim to most of the good seats. This may explain why a pep rally the night before last Saturday's Washington State game, the first such event at Tempe in many years, was attended by no more than 100 of the school's 37,122 students. A TV newsman covering the rally asked students their opinions of the Kush case and was told by one them, "This school has an athletic reputation, but there are a lot of people here who take pride in their academics, too—students and professors alike. And I think what they say is true: you wouldn't get the same kind of publicity if a professor was let go. And I don't think that is too cool."
Further confusing matters for everyone was the emergence of a somewhat shadowy figure named Rick Lynch, a drag-strip operator whom Kush has accused of being a disruptive influence on his team. Lynch admitted to the Associated Press that he made loans to several Arizona State players, whose acceptance of such money would constitute a violation of NCAA rules, and he also said he had employed scores of Sun Devil players in recent years. For his part, Kush accused Lynch of marshaling the five players' allegations of a cover-up that helped Miller make up his mind to suspend the coach. Kush also claimed that Lynch, not Rutledge, was the person he was referring to when he made the statements to his assistant coaches about "closing the circle," but that they had misconstrued his meaning.
On Saturday night, playing their first game under Owens—and their first since 1957 under any coach other than Kush—the Sun Devils beat Washington State 28-7. The fans, many of whom displayed signs expressing allegiance to Kush and excoriating Miller and Lynch, went home happier than they had arrived.
But it may take more than victory on the football field to end the upheaval at Arizona State. Rutledge's case is pending, and Kush said last week, "Believe me, in my heart and in my mind, I did not punch Kevin Rutledge." But whatever the court decides on Rutledge's charges, there remains the inescapable conclusion that, as has happened at other schools, the people responsible for the administration of athletes at Arizona State became so carried away with their ambitions for a big-time football program that they have tarnished their school's reputation. This is boldly reflected in the fact that state legislators would even think to withhold funds from an institution of higher education over the firing of a football coach. But while such action may be deplorable, at least the legislators unquestionably have the authority to cut budgets as they see fit—and, in their wisdom, even to shut down the history and chemistry departments if they should desire to do so.
The influence wielded by the Sun Angel Foundation is another matter. A booster club is an independent organization, and it exercises only the clout that its school allows it to. Under NCAA regulations, a university is responsible for the activities of its boosters. While many of those activities—attending road games, throwing appreciation dinners and the like—are innocuous enough, it has long been clear that when booster clubs become deeply involved in recruiting or make a practice of contributing money with strings attached, rules violations and other problems can—and too often do—arise.
Examples of such violations abound. The old Pacific Coast Conference, forerunner of the Pac-10, collapsed in the 1950s when slush funds financed by booster clubs were uncovered at UCLA, Washington and Southern Cal, among other schools. A similar fund at Illinois led the Big Ten to take steps to expel that school, an effort that was halted only when Football Coach Pete Elliott and two basketball coaches resigned. Art Bergstrom, who directed the NCAA's enforcement team during that period, says, "When you encountered successful, well-organized booster clubs, it wasn't long until their members seemed to think they were running the show."
Sadly, that kind of thinking is still in vogue at schools such as Colorado, whose booster organization, the Flatirons Club, more or less took it upon itself to hire Coach Chuck Fairbanks away from the NFL Patriots, and then shelled out $200,000 to settle a suit that New England had brought against the university. And the thinking is reflected in Harry Rosenzweig's statement that the Sun Angel club is one of the "powers that be" that Arizona State officials should have consulted before firing Kush.
If the Sun Angels have enjoyed wide latitude, so has Kush. Successful college football coaches are frequently treated almost reverentially by college administrators, the prime example, of course, having been Woody Hayes, whose habitual abuse of players, game officials and the press long went uncriticized by Ohio State's brass. And even after the university was finally forced to act, by firing Hayes after he struck an opposing player. Buckeye boosters rushed to their coach's defense, much as Sun Devil fans have now hurried to Kush's. In both instances the boosters correctly pointed out that college football coaches find themselves under enormous pressures. In neither instance did they suggest that such pressures be eased in any way, starting with those that the boosters themselves impose.
Everything considered, it was slightly astonishing that when Kush attended the Washington State game in the company of Rosenzweig, he went all but unnoticed by the fans. "I really enjoyed the view," he later said of his loge seat on the 50-yard line. "It was better than being on the sidelines." But Kush left the impression that he might just want his job back. He told reporters, "In the present situation I can't determine the fate of my coaching situation, but I wouldn't rule out the possibility of my returning."
Rather than address themselves to that possibility, Arizona State's administrators bravely tried to push the raging controversy aside. That plainly wasn't going to be easy, despite the expressed hope of President Schwada, who said, "I just want to get back to running this university." Trouble was, insofar as athletics were concerned, there was no evidence he had ever really begun.