Publish date:

New Game Plan For Mr. Tough

Frank Kush, a notorious taskmaster as a college coach, is back in Arizona as a USFL Outlaw, but he has a glove on the old iron fist

I don't think that's Frank Kush out there," says Arizona Outlaws defensive tackle Kit Lathrop, nodding in the direction of a short guy with flinty, gunslinger eyes and legs that look like bridge pillars. "What has really happened is some player finally has assassinated Kush and that's an imposter."

Indeed, Lathrop, twice the USFL's Outstanding Lineman, has reason to be confused; so does everyone else. For this fellow standing on the Outlaws' practice field in Phoenix is quiet on quiet, only occasionally bestirring himself to blow his whistle and wave his right arm to summon the troops. "This is the real me, all 5'9¼" of me," insists this man. And, in fairness, dental records do support his claim that he is Frank Kush.

But how, pray tell, can that possibly be? We all know Kush, the rantin', ravin' coach of the Arizona State University Sun Devils who rattled players' helmets for 21½ seasons. We all know the Kush who screamed and hollered ("You double jackass") and slapped his players around, then ran them up a nearby mountain—aptly named Mount Kush—to correct the errors of their ways. We all know the Kush who was sued for $2.2 million by an ASU punter who claimed Kush smacked him in the mouth to illustrate his unhappiness with his kicking. We all know the Kush whose idea of coaching strategy is to blow the other team off the ball, then run over them. We all know the Kush who most recently served three unhappy seasons with the NFL Colts (11-28-1), lowlighted when a disgruntled player dumped a root beer on his head. That prompted one writer to observe that the surprise was not that Holden Smith did it, but that the rest of the team didn't. We all know the. Kush who says exactly what's on his mind concerning players, which prompted him to note at various times that the Colts were 1) quitters, 2) horrible tacklers, 3) ill-advised to have drafted Art Schlichter and 4) a team with only eight NFL players.

Kit Lathrop knows all this better than anyone, for Lathrop not only plays for Kush now but played for him at ASU in 1976 and 1977. "I hated him more than any man on this planet," says Lathrop. Other players cared for him even less. But Kush won; lord, how he won. His record at ASU was 176-54-1 as he brought the Sun Devils to national prominence. There were those who considered Kush as mean and tough as Woody Hayes, Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi. If you wanted to chisel just one face up there on Mount Orneriness, Kush's was definitely it.

Kush most likely would have coached for 40 years at Arizona State had he not, in 1978, become involved in that celebrated incident with punter Kevin Rutledge. Oddly, Kush was fired in 1979 not, it was emphasized, for what he might have done to Rutledge, but for supposedly seeking to have his action covered up by getting coaches and players to lie on his behalf. Subsequently, a jury ruled Kush didn't hit Rutledge. Kush understandably doesn't want to talk about the Rutledge issue (the case is under review by the Arizona Court of Appeals), but he repeatedly said during the earlier court proceedings, "Believe me, in my heart and in my mind, I did not punch Kevin Rutledge." Which is not exactly like flat saying he didn't punch Kevin Rutledge.

It was late last year that Kush abruptly quit the NFL Colts to come home to Arizona to coach the USFL Outlaws. That in itself may indicate quirky thinking—although putting Colts owner Bob Irsay in his rearview mirror might indicate some straight-ahead thinking. The point is, Kush came back as a hero. Not a prodigal son, but as a favorite son. The prevailing view is that he didn't really leave; he just needed to get out of the sun briefly. Nowadays Kush is besieged by well-wishers. Sports talk shows in Phoenix are boring when Kush is on because all the callers will do is gush, "Frank, welcome back to the Valley. Frank, welcome back to the Valley...."

On Feb. 24, Kush truly proved you can come home again as he coached a regular-season game in the Valley for the first time since he was fired from Arizona State. (In 1982, Kush brought his Colts to Sun Devil Stadium for an exhibition game against Atlanta, which Baltimore won.) This time, Kush's team won 9-7 on three Luis Zendejas field goals.

Afterward, Kush confessed that simply running onto the ASU field "brought back a lot of memories." Still, the Outlaws were extremely fortunate to win with a sputter-prone offense, and even Kush acknowledged, "The football god was on our side." More significantly, Kush's newfound calm demeanor lasted throughout Game 1—and also through Game 2, a frustrating 16-14 loss on Sunday at San Antonio on a safety with only 1:08 left.

The easiest thing to understand about Frank Kush is why he came back to the Valley. It's because if you could crawl inside his heart, you'd see it's an Arizona heart. He came back because Arizona is home. He's like most everyone else: When we're young we want to leave home and when we're old we want to get back home. Then there was the fact that Outlaw president and G.M. Bill Tatham Jr. offered him $200,000 a year for five years. There also is the feeling that if and when Phoenix gets an NFL team, Kush is a mighty good bet to be the coach.

Says Kush, "I'm coaching football, which is what I want to do. I'm doing it in Arizona, which is where I want to live. And last night I went over and saw my grandchild." And a smile comes over this very tough man's face.

Far more baffling is Kush's personality transplant. He predictably denies that any such change has taken place. "I'm the same jerk I've always been," he says. But he's not the same jerk. There are times now—as unbelievable as it will sound to hundreds of players who suffered under his hand and mouth—that he's not even a jerk. What he really is is an enigma. Sitting around visiting, he is asked if he wants people to like him. "It's not significant to me," he says. And in the very next sentence he will say, "I'm a people person." Obviously, you can't have it both ways, but Kush doesn't see a conflict.

In fact, he has been telling friends in private that as he reflects on his life, "I've been playing a role for all these years and it wasn't me. From now on, I'm gonna be myself and see how it works." What he has concluded is that as he began to be viewed as a disciplinarian's disciplinarian, he found himself trying to live up to that image. He was always a man's man. Rough, tough (the Outlaws' slogan: "Football Don't Get No Tougher"), no compromise. If something goes wrong, smack 'em with a rope or a pipe or your fist. Whatever's handy. Settle things here and now. Frontier justice. A sawed-off Wyatt Earp. The problem is that such a man can get carried away. Witness Woody Hayes punching that Clemson linebacker, Bob Knight throwing that chair.

"The difference in him," says Outlaw offensive tackle Tony Loia, who also played for Kush at ASU, "is night and day. I don't even know he's out here. In college, I never forgot he was. Before, it was like being forced to play for him. Now you don't even mind. It was so bad in college that even the guys who played a lot bitched." Lathrop agrees: "He used to be in your face all the time. Slap us upside our heads, get our attention. He always made a player go one step further than the player thought he could go. His style was intimidation and fear. He'd antagonize us until we were so mad that we wanted to prove all those awful things he said to us were wrong. He would ride us unmercifully and tell us what pansies we were for getting hurt." Once, Lathrop separated his shoulder. Kush allowed him to miss one day of practice. "He just could not accept pain and injury as an excuse," says Lathrop. "The only valid excuse for injury was if you had received the last rites."

Junior Ah You, a defensive end for the Outlaws, who also played for Kush at ASU, is mystified by the new Frank. "Everybody is waiting for him to be the person he's always been," Ah You says. "The old Frank Kush yelled at you, watched you, hit you. But, hey, you used to get lickin's at home, didn't you? What's the difference? Down the road, Frank Kush helps you. Kids need him."

For his part, Kush says of his old, violent ways, "I grabbed 'em, I hit 'em. I admit that. But I did it because I'd get so frustrated because I knew football was their only salvation, their only way out of some terrible backgrounds. I did it because I cared for 'em so much. What I like most is seeing people succeed. In college, I sold myself in recruiting and parents put their sons in my hands. You felt so responsible." His eyes sparkle with emotion as he goes on. "In college, you work with 'em; in the pros, you cut 'em. Here, limitations mean termination."

Kush is an emotional man, which is as good an explanation as any as to why he had only one losing season at ASU. Ask him about emotion and he says, "I have no emotions. My only emotion is to stay alive. I'm the same guy, just older. What I hope is I continue to get older. What you think I think is what you think."

He is a walking contradiction. He says he cares nothing about his celebrity, about his hero status. Yet he clearly revels in it. He even has a sense of humor. On a radio talk show, a caller says, "Are you serious?" Responds Kush, "I am. And I'm also Frank." And another incongruity: For all this tough-guy stuff, people in the Valley find him readily approachable. Old friends walk into his office without knocking. They wander onto the practice field. Indeed, one of Kush's charms—one of his many charms—is that people feel as if they know Frank. And they are sure he knows them.

When Kush was fired, all kinds of stuff hit the fan. The school ended up on probation for a mess involving bogus junior-college grades for football players. There were other accusations involving expense-account padding and organized-crime links; none was proved. Still, as ASU searches for a new football coach to replace Darryl Rogers (now with the Detroit Lions), guess who is the people's choice for the job? Yup.

What people forget, or choose not to remember, about Kush's record at ASU is that he ran up starry stats with his team competing in the Border and Western Athletic conferences. It wasn't until 1978 that the Sun Devils were admitted to the tough Pac-10. Nobody could win in the Pac-10 with the same consistency as in the WAC. But when it comes to legends, people don't want to be confused with facts. And so it goes with Kush.

Frank Kush grew up tough, in the western Pennsylvania town of Windber, Pa., one of 15 kids born to a struggling coal miner. Paying $9 a month rent for a house in a company town was a big nut; the Kush household had no electricity until 1945, because the family couldn't afford it. Frank stole coal off railroad cars. "But we only stole if we had to," he says. At $1.50 a ton for coal, it was clearly way beyond the Kush family budget. A fragment of steel once lodged behind Kush's eye in a construction accident. It was excruciating; he lived with it for a month before it was removed with a magnet. To this day, his vision is fouled by that accident.

Although he was too small, Kush made it big as a defensive tackle at Michigan State; he was All-America. Kush impressed coach Dan Devine with his tenacity, so when Devine was looking for an assistant to help him at ASU in 1955, he thought of Kush. "Plus," says Devine, "I needed somebody I could get to work for $3,600 a year." For Kush, given his background, that sounded like all the money in the world. In 1958 Kush was named head coach at ASU when Devine left for Missouri.

After the Rutledge incident, it looked as if Kush might be through in football. He tried TV commentary and was terrible at it. Then he sold metal detectors and was terrible at it. In 1981 he got a chance to coach the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League. He was thrilled with the possibilities. Says Kush, "I was reborn, let me tell you. I would have taken that job even if I had seen Hamilton first." He went 11-4-1 and was immediately picked up by the Colts.

So isn't coaching the Outlaws a comedown from the NFL? "I never came down and I never went up," he says. "In life, you win and you have setbacks. This is another chapter and another page, and I'm enjoying it. I don't look back on accomplishments. Anything in the past is something I did and I enjoyed it. I am satisfied but not impressed. I provided for my family. That's it."

It could be, of course, that Kush's tough-guy history will be enough to keep the Outlaws toeing the line. Strong safety Bruce Laird says, "He may be a sleeping lion." Loia says, "I don't think there will be an explosion. But don't be surprised if there is." Says quarterback Doug Williams: "I don't have no hangups about a coach that gets excited. He wants perfection, he wants it to work, and so do I. I look for a coach to be upset. Whatever Coach Kush does is O.K. with me."

Lathrop thinks there definitely will be an explosion "unless I'm right and that's not really Frank Kush out there." Kush laughs—yes, he really does—and says, "When you rant, rave and get internally upset, that doesn't do any good." Yes, he actually said that. But it would be wise to keep your eye on the Richter scale, just to stay on the safe side.



Kush's Outlaws were way up but not high enough to prevent a San Antonio victory.



[See caption above.]



Kush cut a familiar figure back in Tempe.



Arizona's quarterback, Doug Williams, gives Kush a taste of what life was like over in the NFL.



The fuss over Rutledge (below) did not dent Kush's support from ASU's fans.



[See caption above.]



Even real men can melt a little over chocolate chip cookies, especially wife Fran's.