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The New Camp Kush : Former Terror of Tempe Is Still Watching Devils, but Now It's at Reform School

November 14, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. — In short bursts of rhythm and rote during an afternoon class shift, boys in red shirts perform about-face pirouettes and march past boys in yellow shirts.

All commands are obeyed.

All eyes are fixed.

All haircuts are military.

It is a brilliant November day, the desert awash in long shadows, as the minivan crunches along a gravel road during inspection of the 188-acre Arizona Boys Ranch.

The driver's side window is half-open as the vehicle passes two students on their way to class.

"Hello, Sir!" one says respectfully to the driver.

"Hey, Frank!' says the other.

The van rolls on until, suddenly, the driver gets that look in his eye, stomps his foot on the brake and glares into his rear-view mirror.

"Hey, Frank," he mutters, mimicking the student's remark. "He shouldn't be calling me that. I ought to get on his [expletive] for that, but I don't want to embarrass him."

There was a time Frank Kush would have been on that kid's expletive like butter on toast. Had the boy been wearing a football helmet, well, Kush might have grabbed the facemask and made taffy out of his neck.

Hey, Frank.

Once, had there been an available mountain, the kid might have been running up and down it until he vomited.

For 21-plus seasons, 1958 to 1979, Frank Kush was the meanest SOB to pace a college football sideline, exacting equal amounts of terror and success from his Arizona State players. His three-a-day, training-camp practices at Kohl's Ranch outside Phoenix were compared to stalags. He compiled a record of 176-54-1 and scores of critics.

"With Frank Kush, when you made a mistake, you feared the man," former Arizona State lineman Gary Winchester says.

You didn't play for Kush as much as you survived him. Those who did came to love him. Those who didn't were easily discarded.

"There were times I just hated that man," says Mike Pagel, former Arizona State and NFL quarterback. "But when I look back, at that time in my life, it was a great thing for me."

Kush is 67 now, and much less feared, slowed by a bum knee, abdominal pains and a setting sun.

Six years ago, Bob Thomas, Arizona Boys Ranch's controversial chief executive officer, asked Kush to become executive administrator at the reform school 35 miles southeast of Phoenix.

The ranch is a private, nonprofit residential agency that affords wayward youths one last chance before juvenile hall or jail.

If Kush's hiring would be likened to hiring a wolf to run a hen house, Thomas did not care.

"I don't make moves because something's controversial," Thomas says. "I make moves that are good for kids. This guy has helped more kids through ASU than anybody that I've ever been aware of."

Welcome to Frank Kush's public relations makeover.

In a year when Rose Bowl-bound Arizona State has risen from the ashes to national acclaim, so has Kush returned to the fore.

"I never felt I went anywhere," he grunts.

As Richard Nixon discovered, time has a way of smoothing over life's rough spots.

Seventeen years have passed since Arizona State fired Kush, leaving the program he raised from tumbleweeds in a maelstrom and, ultimately, on NCAA probation.

Kush's firing--the October 1979 surprise--came in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Sun Devil punter Kevin Rutledge, who alleged Kush punched him in the face during a 1978 game against Washington.

Kush was not ousted for the alleged punch, per se, but for trying to cover up the incident by persuading staff members and players to change their stories.

An NCAA investigation found Arizona State guilty of numerous other violations and the school was put on probation, eliminated from television and bowl games for two years.

But as time tends to soften transgressions, there eventually was a move afoot to restore Kush to idolatry.

On Sept. 21, during halftime ceremonies at the Arizona State-Nebraska game, the field at Sun Devil Stadium was renamed Frank Kush Field. More than 300 former players attended.

For old time's sake, Arizona State stunned No. 1 Nebraska, 19-0, igniting the Sun Devils' own national title charge.

The reclamation had come full circle. Twenty-one years earlier, at the 1975 Fiesta Bowl, Arizona State had presented Kush his greatest victory, a 17-15 victory over Nebraska that culminated a 12-0 season and No. 2 national ranking.

Kush, elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1995, was never much for sentiment, but even he couldn't help note the symmetry.

Arizona State alumni had always wanted to restore Kush's sullied name but feared the public backlash.

"It's long overdue," says John Jefferson, former NFL star receiver who played for Kush. "It was just a case of the university coming to its senses. Frank Kush is ASU, just as Woody Hayes is Ohio State."

When it was determined enough time had passed, Vic Cegles, the school's assistant athletic director, proceeded with dedication plans.

Cegles received only a few letters of protest.

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