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Ron Reid
October 29, 1979
The heat was on at Arizona State when Coach Frank Kush was canned, baring big-time college football's seamy side
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October 29, 1979

There's The Devil To Pay

The heat was on at Arizona State when Coach Frank Kush was canned, baring big-time college football's seamy side

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There have been many college football scandals over the years, some involving widespread subversion of the rule book. But few of them have caused as much of an uproar as the unseemly succession of events that culminated on Oct. 13 in the sacking of Arizona State Coach Frank Kush. It is a sorry epic, a kind of Cactus Horror Yahoo Show, that raises urgent—and all too familiar—questions about college football in general. Is any coach bigger than his school's athletic program? Should backers dictate policy to a university as a condition of their financial contributions? And for whose benefit is intercollegiate football played anyway?

Kush, the 50-year-old taskmaster who is at the center of the storm, compiled a 176-54-1 record during 21� years at Arizona State and became, in the manner of successful football coaches everywhere, a folk hero in Sun Devil country. One of 15 children of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Kush made All-America as a scrappy 170-pound defensive guard on Michigan State's 1952 national champions, and as a coach he tried to instill the same combativeness in his players. He slapped helmets, kicked butts, yanked face masks, doled out punishment laps up a 500-foot hillock known as Mount Kush and, according to what a former player, Mike Tomco, once told a reporter, stomped on players' hands. A former Arizona State player, Steve Chambers, has told TIME, "He's hit me with pipes, boards and a ship's rope." Through it all, Kush said, "My job is to win football games, put people in the stadium and make money for the university."

Kush understood his job well. Because he produced winning teams that used a crowd-pleasing big-play offense, few people complained about his excesses. Certainly not the school's administration, which never publicly admonished him for his heavy-handed tactics, and certainly not the Sun Angel Foundation, a booster organization of 4,500 members, most of them well-heeled local businessmen. The organization was founded in 1946 to help put Arizona State, then a small school in a sleepy part of the country, on the map. There were some setbacks, notably in 1959, Kush's second year as head coach, when Arizona State was placed on a two-year NCAA probation for recruiting violations involving overzealous boosters. But the Sun Devils prospered on the field, and the school is today very much on the map; as of last year it became a member of the powerful Pac-10. The Sun Angels have fueled the school's growing prowess by contributing $2.5 million over the years to athletic scholarships and $4.5 million toward the expansion of Sun Devil Stadium, from 33,000 to 71,000 seats. They also have frequently shown their appreciation to Kush, throwing dinners in his honor and once giving him a new station wagon.

It was in this climate of genial indulgence that an Arizona State punter named Kevin Rutledge began stirring up a fuss. The uproar started after Rutledge shanked a kick during a 41-7 loss to Washington last season. While this was one of the Sun Devils' lesser sins during an altogether abysmal performance, it infuriated Kush. Rutledge says that when he returned to the sideline, Kush grabbed his helmet, shook it from side to side and unloaded a punch under the face mask that caught Rutledge in the mouth. Rutledge, whom Kush never called on to punt again, also claims that Kush and two assistant coaches, William Maskill and Gary Horton, conspired to humiliate, ridicule and embarrass him in front of his teammates as part of a concerted effort to make him quit football and, thus, surrender his athletic scholarship.

Through an attorney, Robert Hing, Rutledge told all this to Arizona State's board of regents. But Kush denied the allegations, and the board rejected the player's complaint. Rutledge transferred to Nevada-Las Vegas, and on Sept. 21 filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against Kush, the two assistant coaches, Athletic Director Fred Miller, the university and its board of regents. The next day an insurance agency in Gilbert, Ariz. owned by Kevin's father, Gordon, burned to the ground. It was listed as arson. The Rutledges then received a call from an unidentified man who said, "You just got a taste last night of what's going to happen if you don't drop this suit." Another caller threatened to shoot family members and blow up their house. The Rutledges also received menacing letters, including one filled with razor blades, and Kevin's brother, Robert, a defensive back at Gilbert High, grew fearful and began playing under an assumed name.

At first university officials said little about the suit, one of 13, as it happens, in which various members of the Rutledge family have been involved over the past decade. But then, two weeks ago, three hours before Arizona State would play Washington in Tempe, Kush unloaded a bombshell. He called a press conference and announced that he was going to be canned as football coach. "I am told the reason I am being fired is that Dr. Miller did not believe me when I denied punching Kevin Rutledge," he said. Kush added that he had taken a lie detector test, "and it proved I have been completely truthful." Miller let Kush coach the Washington game, and in what probably ranks as a college football first he was carried onto the field by his team, which proceeded to avenge last year's rout with a 12-7 upset victory. Then Kush was carried off the field.

On Monday, in a press conference of his own, Miller elucidated the reasons for the firing, chief among them being his allegation that Kush had attempted to cover up the alleged punching of Rutledge by encouraging his players and assistants to lie, if necessary, about the matter. Two days later Miller showed reporters sworn statements from five players and five assistant coaches attesting to the existence of such a cover-up. Offensive Backfield Coach Don Baker said in his deposition, "The coach said, 'Things are getting tough. We better close the circle, and we might have to lie, steal or cheat.' " And Offensive Line Coach Bob Karmelowicz quoted Kush as saying, "We are all in this together. If I go, we all go. We have got to make sure our stories are right, the same. Don't worry about perjuring yourself." Three players, Chambers, Gary Bouck and Bryan Caldwell, claimed to have seen Kush punch Rutledge.

If Miller seriously expected this accumulation of evidence to cool the passions that were building in Kush's behalf in Phoenix, he was sorely mistaken. It quickly became apparent that the majority of Arizona State fans simply wanted Kush to go on coaching their football team, regardless of what transgressions he may have committed, KEEP KUSH T shirts suddenly appeared, as did bumper stickers reading I LOVE GOD AND FRANK KUSH, and the Arizona Republic ran a limerick by reader Jaema Gomez:

Accusers now lurk in the bushes,
Here's hoping they fall on their tushes;
For if there's a coach,
Above all reproach,
We all know that ASU's Kush is.

For Bob Owens, whom Miller had elevated from defensive coordinator to interim head coach, last week was a nightmare. Owens' family was threatened by an anonymous caller, and his 11-year-old daughter had to be taken out of school because of cruel gibes from classmates. Just to be safe, police checked his car for bombs. Just to be safer, Owens stopped driving the car. Owens also was assigned a bodyguard, who remained at his side all week.

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