Frank Kush’s death on Thursday, at age 88, unleashed a torrent of thoughts.
If God has a sense of humor, Kush is doing bear crawls right now around the pearly gates.
THE most polarizing figure in the history of college football was unique in that he was hailed or loathed, respected or despised. There wasn’t much middle ground on the man.
His kind, frankly, could not exist anymore–would not be tolerated by the “snowflake” crowd and helicopter parents. “Hard-ass” Nick Saban, in comparison, is a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army. Kush’s sanctioned brutality, if attempted today, would probably land him in jail.
The things he did to players at Arizona State are well documented, and don’t age gracefully over time.
I did NOT like Kush at all growing up, mostly because I played for a Pop Warner coach who borrowed heavily from Kush’s torture handbook: unrelenting practices, verbal abuse, no water. Here’s the thing: My Pop Warner coach got fired, after only one season, for what he did to us. Maybe because we were only 12?
Our coach once, I swear, made us run the same play, over and over, for an entire practice in 100-degree August heat. Without a single water break. I was a pulling guard on the play and ended up dry heaving.
As we suffered, this sadistic, sorry, son-of-a-bitch sipped from a large “cone” of A&W Root Beer, then dumped it out in front of us.
Trust me, any character I may have built up over time in life did not spawn from that bonding experience.
I know there are people who swear by him, and say his kind of military toughness made them tougher. Count me out.
A friend of mine told me a story about playing for Kush at Arizona State. Injured players were not allowed to be assisted from the field. My friend blew his knee out at practice and had to crawl off like a wounded animal. He never played football again yet, somehow turned out to be a fine coach and teacher for more than four decades.
My fascination with Kush, however, never waned, and that curiosity led to one of my favorite journalistic forays in 34 years at the L.A. Times.
In November of 1996, I met face-to-face with the man, the myth and the legend–the feared warden of Camp Tontozona.
That story was spawned by the best kind of writing inspiration—gut instinct.
I was on assignment in Phoenix for another story when I got word—I can’t remember how—that the 67-year-old Kush was running a reform school for boys. This was the same guy who was fired at Arizona State for mistreatment of players (namely a punter named Kevin Rutledge).
Guess what: this reform school also had a football team.
I literally said out loud: “Are you shitting me?”
Back then, working for Los Angeles Times sports editor Bill Dwyre, you didn’t need procedural permission on this kind of “no-brainer” stuff. I knew what his answer would be: “Go get the story.”
I changed my return trip plans, kept my rental, and drove several miles to the Boy’s Ranch that Kush was running.
Back then, we also didn’t have to worry about story length. If the story was good, you could write the you-know-what out of it.
I knew this was good, bordering on great.
Gold was struck 10 minutes after I arrived at Boy’s Ranch, as Kush met me with a minivan for a tour of the facilities. We passed one of the boys and he said “Hey Frank.”
I can still remember the sound of the wheels slamming to a stop on gravel.
Kush was pissed. “Hello Sir,” not “Hey Frank,” was the only acceptable response.
If this was anyone but Kush I might have thought he was putting on a show for a visiting reporter. But this was no act.
“Hey Frank,” Kush muttered under his breath. “He shouldn’t be calling me that. I ought to get on his ass for that, but I don’t want to embarrass him.”
For the story, we used “expletive” instead of ass.
While I did not personally like Kush, for all he reminded me of my Pop Warner experience, I was extremely interested in him.
I can honestly say I left the day with more respect for him. Talking to people, square in the eye, always helps. It’s also true that, at age 67, he had mellowed considerably from his hellbent coaching days.
Here’s a link to my 1996 story, if you care to dig deeper into the legendary coach who died Thursday.
One of my favorite Kush stories came from former quarterback Mike Pagel, who said his coach once got so upset with his players he turned the clock back three hours and started practice over.
Another thing I remember about that story. It took out several layers of my stomach lining.
The bosses (Dwyre and his trusty cabal) recognized it was a winner and wanted it…NOW. Back then, the L.A. Times was basically a daily magazine with this important caveat: We didn’t always get weeks to pontificate or polish our words.
As best as I can recollect, I interviewed Kush on Monday, Nov. 11. The desk demanded the story by Wednesday.
It ran on the front page of sports: Thursday, Nov. 14.
That’s how we rolled, folks.
I always tell people the best part of writing is being finished writing.