Just a little more than two months into his new job as Arizona State’s new head football coach, Todd Graham seems to be making all the right moves.
He’s put a new emphasis on local recruiting, makes himself available for local speaking engagements, and is getting the fan base and local community more involved in the football program. Heck, he’s even set out to build better relationships with the local media, making his entire staff more accessible and promising greater transparency than ever before.
And now he appears to be reaching back into the past to connect with tradition.
According to reports in both The Arizona Republic and the Payson Roundup, Graham is taking a serious look at sending the team back up the hill to the hallowed ground known as Camp Tontozona for its spring practices.
The camp, located on 36 acres of towering pine trees amid the scenic mountains in the Christopher Creek area, was first introduced into the ASU football program by legendary coach, Frank Kush, back in 1960. It’s located just east of Payson by the rustic Kohl’s Ranch resort.
Tonto Creek is within walking distance of the practice field that has been carved out of the tree-covered landscape. The camp name comes from combining Tonto with Arizona.
Kush decided it would be the perfect spot to put his team up for a couple of weeks, providing a remote area free from outside distractions that would enable his players to focus on the game of football.
If statistics are any indication, the move was extremely successful. The Sun Devil teams that made that annual trek to Tontozona compiled a 176-54-1 record over those 22 years. And made a couple of Rose Bowl appearances, something that has eluded teams of this era. The last ASU trip to Pasadena came in 1987, when Jeff Van Raaphorst was the quarterback.
But Graham’s predecessor didn’t make use of this unique opportunity, which many observers consider one of the best spring training sites in the country for college football.
Kush’s reputation as a tough coach was fueled in part by stories of the rigorous workouts his troops went through at Tontozona; tales of player hardships during those 11 days of camp are still passed around today. A nearby mountain was even renamed Mt. Kush because it’s where players who fell into disfavor with the coach would be put through a grueling hike up and down the face of the rugged landmark.
But Dennis Erickson stopped using Tontozona early in his five-year tenure at the helm of the program, preferring instead to use school facilities, particularly the air-conditioned practice facility that had been erected on campus.
The camp was turned into a venue for high school and college sports camps and a meeting place for youth groups, managed by an outside organization. But ASU remained the owner of the site and facilities, with an eye on possibly returning some day.
That day may have arrived.
But in order for the team to be able to use the site again in this new digital age, the technologies would have to be upgraded. Cell phones can’t even pick up reception in the remote location of the camp, which makes that somewhat of a challenge – and probably rather costly. That money would likely have to come from school boosters and ASU supporters in the Payson area that would like to give the local economy a boost – and enjoy having the maroon and gold colors back in their backyard again.
And that was the additional benefit of being at Camp Tontozona. It enabled fans to mingle with the team and coaches for a little while, taking in the practices, and getting to know the players before the season started.
That’s just another reason the move makes sense. It fits into Graham’s grand scheme of connecting the football program to the community.
It might even prove to be the first step back on the road to Pasadena.
Hey, whatever it takes. Twenty-five years has been a long wait.