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.