The name slipped back into the sports pages a few weeks ago. Nothing very elaborate. It was sort of an afterthought, a tag line to a short report out of Montreal. The bulk of the story was about Vince Ferragamo, the former quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams, who the night before had made his first start in the Canadian Football League. Ferragamo and the Montreal Alouettes had lost to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the preseason opener for both CFL teams. The last line of the story said that the game had also been a successful debut for the Hamilton coach, Frank Rush.
Wait a minute. Frank Kush? In Canada? Yup. The former Arizona State coach and taskmaster, who, it was alleged, struck a Sun Devil punter named Kevin Rutledge in the face in 1978 and then, midway through the '79 season, lost his job for supposedly trying to cover up details of the incident, is back in football. When Arizona State fired him, Kush was the second-winningest active college coach—176-54-1 in 21½ seasons—behind Bear Bryant. Earlier this year an Arizona superior-court jury cleared Kush of all charges related to the Rutledge affair. Now in Hamilton, Ontario, at age 52, he has begun to pick up the pieces of his career.
Shortly after leaving Arizona State, Kush started looking for another coaching job. He knew he had little chance of landing a college position, so he tried the NFL. He spoke with Tex Schramm and Gil Brandt in Dallas, Art Rooney Jr. in Pittsburgh, Chuck Knox in Buffalo, George Halas in Chicago. No one was interested. His best hope, he was told, was to wait until after the trial, until after the bad publicity had blown over.
In January 1980, Kush said, he had set up a meeting in Las Vegas with Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay, who had fired his coach, Ted Marchibroda, a few weeks before. The morning Kush and Irsay were to meet, a story broke in the Arizona Republic that the FBI was investigating current and former Arizona State coaches and officials on charges of gambling, mail fraud and intimidation of witnesses in the upcoming Rutledge trial. Kush got a call at the Phoenix airport from Baltimore. It was Irsay's secretary. She said her boss' plane had engine trouble and that the meeting was off. Kush and Irsay never did get together.
June 28, 1981
During his search for a coaching position, Kush worked in Phoenix, first as a supervisor at an engineering firm and then as a sports commentator for KOOL-TV, the city's CBS affiliate. He hated both jobs. "I missed coaching," he says. "Nothing else I did seemed like me."
October 1980 rolled around, and he still didn't have any coaching offers. Enter Hamilton General Manager Ralph Sazio, who also had a problem. Tiger-Cat Coach John Payne and owner Harold Ballard didn't see eye to eye. Ballard enjoyed Payne's company but thought he was too soft as coach—a trait, needless to say, no one ever accused Kush of possessing. As for what Kush was being accused of, that didn't seem to bother Sazio. "His coaching was never a question, and all the accusations, well, I saw him as a poor guy taking a lot of unnecessary crap," Sazio says.
On October 10, Sazio met Kush in Phoenix and, pitched the job. "I sold it as a new challenge and a breath of fresh air," says Sazio. "He needed the air." Six weeks later Kush signed a contract. Two months after that, on Jan. 26 of this year, the Rutledge trial began. It wouldn't end until April 20.
When Kush arrived in Hamilton in January—he had to make only a few appearances at the trial—he must have wondered what he'd gotten himself into by coming to the CFL, where players often hold down outside jobs. His kicker, Bernie Ruoff, sells used cars. One linebacker, Ben Zambiasi, deals in water beds; another, Jack Blair, is a carpenter. Slotback Gord Paterson is a stockbroker, and Center Henry Waszczuk teaches school. According to a CFL Players' Association agreement, Hamilton can't begin practice before 4 p.m. Too many players have other jobs. Kush also found himself with a 33,947-seat stadium—Arizona State played before home crowds of 70,000—no personal secretary and no team weight room. Still, he was enthusiastic, and his ardor impressed Sazio. "He's got it all," Sazio says. "Smart, devoted and tireless." Right off, the players, too, raved about Kush. To wit:
•"First words he said to me were, 'I didn't see you at breakfast—$50 fine.' But you can see fire in his eyes and hear iron in that voice. He's motivated to take this team places. And he's fair."
—DEFENSIVE BACK JERRY ANDERSON
•"He's a lot like my college coach, Ara Parseghian—a strict disciplinarian, but not unreasonable. He drives us hard, but it's no problem. I've learned how hard work makes winners. He has, too."
—QUARTERBACK TOM CLEMENTS
Notre Dame, 1972-74
•"Players in this league can influence coaches. Suggest a play, and the coach might put it in. That kind of thing. I've had six coaches in the CFL, and Frank Kush is the first one who isn't like that."
Kent State, 1972-74
There's solid evidence that this early enthusiasm for Kush will sustain itself. For instance, he has the amazing ability to cram an hour of work into about 15 minutes. The day Sazio signed him, Kush asked for films of Hamilton's 1980 games. A week later he sent Sazio a rating of all 60 Tiger-Cats. The names were listed in three columns marked Keepers, Trade, Release Immediately. Kush then contacted all 28 NFL clubs to get the names of players released in 1979 and 1980. He invited about 60 of these castoffs to the Hamilton camp along with some 150 college seniors who were expected to go low in the NFL draft. Thirty players showed up. Among them was Jerome Stanton, a three-year starter at defensive back for Michigan State. Miami cut Stanton in 1979, and he was out of football last year. But against Montreal in that preseason opener, Stanton picked off two passes, returning one 81 yards for a TD. Hamilton won 27-21. Since that win the Tiger-Cats have split two exhibition games. They start the regular season on July 5.
By the time training camp began on May 23, Kush had revised his Arizona State playbook, which is four inches thick, tailoring it to the CFL rules, and had written a 40-page booklet on off-season conditioning. He also persuaded Sazio to put in a weight room. When the players reported, they discovered that weight training would be mandatory. Kush lengthened practices and stressed scrimmages and goal-line drills.
"I still believe in discipline," Kush says. "And the only way to perfect timing is by hitting. That's why we scrimmage a lot. I haven't changed my ideas in 35 years, and I'm not going to change now." He pauses and continues, "Only thing I haven't done is slap a headgear or pull a face mask."
Kush winks. He may be joking. "In college you mold kids, see their progress," he goes on. "You use punishment because you have to play them. Here, if a guy won't do something you get rid of him."
Kush likes the fact that his new job involves only coaching. "The three R's in college no longer are reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic," he says. "They're recruiting, recognition and revenues. The whole system needs reevaluation. That's why I'm against Canadian universities giving athletic scholarships. They'll get involved in the same ills you have in collegiate football in the U.S. With scholarships you get a different perspective of the sport, and your values, as far as education is concerned, begin to become tarnished."
But will Kush become a permanent fixture in Hamilton? He has a three-year contract. He also has many friends in the NFL, and successful CFL coaches often land jobs across the border: Minnesota's Bud Grant worked in Winnipeg; Kansas City's Marv Levy in Montreal; Chicago's Neill Armstrong in Edmonton. And Kush still owns a house in Tempe and has no plans to sell it. He rents a condominium on Lake Ontario, but it isn't furnished. He simply hasn't gotten around to it. Instead he has been staying at a hotel in Hamilton. That will change now that Fran Kush has joined her husband. "Permanent?" says Kush. "I've learned lately that the only thing to expect is the unexpected."
If Kush is using Hamilton as a springboard to the NFL, the plan might prove risky. First, he'd have to win, and besides the usual adjustments a coach has to make in moving from college to the pros, Kush must adapt to CFL rules: 12 men on a side, three downs to make 10 yards, and a wider and longer field than the NCAA's and NFL's. In addition, Hamilton fans aren't exactly looking for a savior. Last year the Tiger-Cats were in the Grey Cup, the Super Bowl of Canada. "The fans are impatient; they want another winner now," says Tony Fitz-Gerald, a football reporter for The Spectator in Hamilton. "He'll hear it if he falls even a little short." It's with good reason that Kush discards speculation that he might have unwisely put his reputation on the line. "It's no gamble," he says, "not when it's your only offer."
A few weeks ago Kush sat in his office, telling of his 18-month ordeal. He paused now and then and his eyes grew wide, as if to ask: Can you believe this?
"Every day I picked up a paper and read something new," he said. "I had to pinch myself a hundred times. It seemed unreal, like it wasn't me they were writing about. One day I'm a Coach of the Year . I'm proud, happy, successful. Then, suddenly, I'm an ogre.
"So the trial ends and I win. But not really. Destroyed are things that took years to build: a winning program, great fans and terrific university-community relations. Now I'm gone, they're gone, everything's gone. What a waste.
"I can't tell you how grateful I am to coach again. It's like a rebirth."