BLOG: Frank Kush made the Territorial Cup rivalry what it is today

Posted at 10:54 AM, Jun 22, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-22 14:10:29-04

Frank Kush was just as intimidating at age 82 as I imagine he was when he accepted the head coaching job at Arizona State 53 years earlier.

In 2011, I was conducing interviews for a book on the history of the Arizona State-University of Arizona football rivalry -- a book that would have been incomplete without input from the all-time winningest coach in ASU football history, and the man who beat the Wildcats 16 times in his 21-year Sun Devil head coaching career.

At the time of my interview, Kush, who was a special assistant to the athletic director at ASU, had an office overlooking Sun Devil Stadium on the sixth floor of ASU's Carson Center. He's a classic example of a man who lets you know who's in charge without saying a word or moving a muscle.

"Thanks for meeting with me," I said as I nervously sat in a chair on the other side of his desk. "We'll see if you feel the same way when we're done," he replied coldly.

Frank Kush knows how to set the tone. He did so in the Territorial Cup rivalry in 1958, his very first year as Arizona State head coach.

That year, Arizona residents were set to vote on Proposition 200, which would turn Arizona State College into Arizona State University. Weeks before the vote, UA vandals who wanted the Wildcats to remain the state's only university, defaced the brand-new Sun Devil Stadium by burning "No 200" into the field. 

But Kush and the Sun Devils got the last laugh both on and off the field, as Prop 200 passed easily, and the Sun Devils destroyed the Wildcats 47-0 in Tucson days later.

Kush's Devils went on to beat Arizona every year from 1965-78, except in 1974 when the Wildcats stole a 10-0 victory in Tucson. Kush had a tradition of telling his players they would walk home from Tucson if they lost to their hated rivals.

Before I talked to Kush, I interviewed several men who played for him. They all told the same story: He was a hard-nosed jackass who had a "tough, marine, drill sergeant-type persona," according to one former Sun Devil, and he treated everyone equally -- as in equally poor.

But that's only part of the story.

"When you look back and think about how he treated us, which was all the same, I'll give him credit for that -- but it wasn't very good. But you don't really realize what kind of a man he is until you're away from him," said Jim Folmer, who played offensive guard and linebacker at ASU from 1963-65. 

"He used to have a policy where he would take the seniors the last week (of the season) on the town for a couple of nights. And I remember he talked to us as a group and said, 'This is football, guys. This is fun. Wait until you get a kid who gets sick on you, or you've got to make mortgage payments you can't do. That's hard.'

"At the time you go, 'Yeah, right.' But later on in life, you start thinking about some of the things he told you that final evening you were with him. And it stuck with me forever."

Sitting in Kush's office, I sat down the tape recorder on his desk and did my best not to let my nerves get the best of me.

To my relief, he opened up right away.

He told me about driving his family from Pennsylvania to Tempe when then-Arizona State head coach Dan Devine offered him a job on his staff in 1955. He recalled the Valley was much more heavily invested in Arizona State athletics back then, before any pro teams occupied the desert.

"When I first came here, we were the only act in town. Now, we've got more pro teams than you can shake a stick at," he said.

He talked about learning from Devine, who had coached him at Michigan State. He backed up what his players said about him, in that he treated everyone equally awful, especially during practices in 100-degree weather. 

And he recalled the reasons behind the intensity and animosity among fans in the ASU-UA football rivalry that still exists.

"It got more intense because of the social contrast between southern Arizona and central Arizona," he said. "Tempe was affiliated with Phoenix, and Phoenix is the capital of the state of Arizona. It was a political thing also, because (Tucson is) down south and they didn't have that close geographical location with the capital."

Kush was dismissed as ASU coach in 1979 after the school determined he had interfered with an investigation involving one of his former players. I didn't have the nerve to bring up that incident, but I did ask whether he would do anything differently if he could.

Short answer: Nope.

"I'd work them the same way that I always worked them. I love to see people be successful," he said. "My biggest problem was every time I recruited a kid, I thought he was going to be great. Well, you know, some kids have limited ability.

"But I learned that getting the maximum amount out of that individual was the biggest thing. You can control it as a coach at the collegiate level and high school level, in my opinion. (At the professional level) they'd tell you to go to hell."

After our 30-minute discussion, Kush walked me out of his office and put his arm around me. He then suggested we should make a wager about the upcoming Territorial Cup game -- a comment that surprised me, as I had no idea he knew I was an Arizona Wildcat alum.

I can't remember exactly how he phrased it, but he suggested he'd find me a girlfriend if Arizona won. I laughed awkwardly and explained that I had just gotten married. He laughed, shook my hand and went back into his office, and I headed to the elevator with some of the worse pit stains of my life.

"You survived," a male ASU employee said with a smile as we headed down to the main floor.

My book wouldn't have been complete without input from Frank Kush. Heck, there wouldn't have been a book to write without him and the impact he made on a rivalry that had been dominated by "that team down south" until he decided to move his family across the country.

Rest in peace, Coach -- and thanks for taking time to intimidate this Wildcat. It was 30 minutes of my life that I'll never forget.