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.