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Players say discipline, mental toughness keys to Kush’s success building ASU football

Editor’s Note: Frank Kush, football. Ned Wulk, men’s basketball. Bobby Winkles, baseball. Along with track and field coach Baldy Castillo, this group helped elevate Arizona State University athletics into a nationally known program from the late 1950s on. This Cronkite News special multimedia report explores their careers and legacies.

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TEMPE – After putting his team through seven hours of preseason practice at Camp Tontozona near Payson, Arizona State football coach Frank Kush would make players run up a steep hill dubbed Mount Kush in full pads and helmets.

The coach would make the trip as well to make sure everyone made it to the top.

But for Danny White, who played quarterback for Kush from 1971 to 1973 before an NFL career, the most memorable runs up Mount Kush were punishments for disappointing the coach during practice.

“And your coach had to go with you and make sure that you got to the top and you didn’t just go halfway up,” White said. “So your coach was mad at you, Coach Kush was mad at you, in addition to the fact that you had to run up that mountain.”

Several former players said discipline and instilling mental toughness allowed Kush to build ASU football in to a power and compile a 176-54-1 record, 19 winnings seasons and six bowl wins from 1958 to 1979.

Steve Matlock, an offensive lineman from 1970 to 1972, said that while Mount Kush wasn’t an experience he and other players enjoyed, Kush made players learn very quickly to stay focused and not make any mental mistakes.

“It was the hard work, and the whole work ethic behind the way he coached that was pretty incredible,” Matlock said. “And the toughness – you know the mental toughness, far more than the physical toughness – was something that he instilled in everybody who went there.”

In an interview, the now-85-year-old Kush said discipline and attention to detail have to come from the top.

“As a head coach, you have to be close to all of your assistant coaches, knowing what they’re doing, what they’re teaching, et cetera, and making sure that they’re having the disciplines,” he said.

Kush, along with basketball coach Ned Wulk, baseball coach Bobby Winkles and track-and-field coach Baldy Castillo, helped establish ASU as a sports power.

His 176 wins and 22-year tenure are by far the most among the school’s football coaches. The field at Sun Devil Stadium is named in his honor.

“I was very fortunate to have that capability to go on to college and participate at this level, a very competitive level,” Kush said. “And we had a lot of success, and I was very fortunate.”

Sun Devil football got its start in 1897, but until Kush took over the team hadn’t drawn national attention. In fact, it was the entire athletic program at ASU that began to take off.

Kush said he, Wulk, Winkles and Castillo worked together build it.

“It was one of those situations where you had a great relationship not only with the coaches in the different sports, but the players,” he said. “It was almost like a team and that’s really what it came down to, an ASU college team that became a university.”

Born in Windber, Pennsylvania, and one of 15 children, Kush said he grew up knowing what it was like to work together as a group and how much stronger it could make each individual. Discipline at home, as well as the high standards of the school system in his hometown, created the fundamentals of his coaching style, he said.

“You got it from your parents,” he said. “And my dad was quite a disciplinarian, so I had great work ethic, discipline.”

Jim Shaughnessy, an ASU halfback from 1967 to 1969, said his upbringing with a disciplinarian father left him with mixed emotions as he played for Kush.

“He probably never recruited an athlete that hated him more at times than I did,” he said.

But Shaughnessy said he’s grateful that Kush pushed him to be his best, even though at the time he couldn’t see the benefit.

“He knew how to get the gold out of you,” he said. “He knew what he was looking for with each individual player, and he was never satisfied with you until he got rid of the brass and got the gold out to make you be the person you needed to be.”

Kush had 129 players move on to the NFL, including Danny White, who spent 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys but came to ASU as a baseball recruit.

“Frank Kush was the one that instilled it in me – I don’t know what it was, competitiveness or whatever it was that made me just fall in love with the game of football when I got to ASU,” White said.

Kush said Danny White was among the most memorable players he coached, but it was another Dan who claims the honor of being his favorite.

“The greatest coaching memory was my son Dan. He was our kicker,” Kush said. “He was a great kicker, and he was very accurate.”

Dan Kush played for his father from 1973 to 1976 and kicked the field goal that won the 1975 Fiesta Bowl against Nebraska.

Dan Kush said he worked hard to show the other players that he deserved his spot on the team.

“I made sure I was working as hard as they were or harder,” he said.

Kush’s tenure at ASU ended in controversy. A former punter, Kevin Rutledge, sued Kush, ASU and other parties alleging that the coach and his staff subjected him to mental and physical harassment, including punching him in the mouth after a bad punt on Oct. 28, 1978, against the Washington Huskies.

While Kush prevailed when the case went to court, ASU Athletic Director Fred Miller dismissed him on Oct. 13, 1979, after determining that the coach wasn’t forthcoming about the incident.

It was just three hours before a home game against sixth-ranked Washington. Kush was allowed to coach the game, and his team pulled off a 12-7 upset. Players carried him off the field afterward.

Kush later sued the university and the Arizona Board of Regents and settled the case for $200,000.

Asked about the incident, Kush said only that he had no regrets from his coaching days.

Shaughnessy, who was a witness in the trial on Rutledge’s suit, said it was hard to watch such a great man face such allegations because his disciplinary style was how he taught his players lifelong lessons and created his legacy.

“You can never thank him enough for never giving up on you and disciplining the bad habits, the bad thinking and disciplining that out of you through mental toughness and physical conditioning,” Shaughnessy said. “He was the guy you loved to hate because of what he made you do, but then in life, he’s the guy you love because of the lessons that he taught you.”

Kush returned to head coaching in 1981 with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, leading the team to an 11-4-1 record.

He coached the NFL’s Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts from 1982 to 1984, compiling a record of 11-28-1 before resigning.

Kush then coached the Arizona Outlaws of the United States Football League.

Accompanied by his son Dan, Kush can still be found visiting the halls of ASU’s athletic building and talking with players and coaches on the field at Sun Devil Stadium. He said he’s never stopped being a coach.

“I’ve done it for so many years that you’re part of it,” he said. “I love to see people be successful, and if there is any way that I can continue to help out in any way, I will, and that’s part of the job.”