ASU’s football game plan…get back to Camp Tontozona

OK, it wasn’t rocket science, and probably didn’t really warrant a press conference, but it was a smart move by Arizona State‘s new football boss, Todd Graham, to announce the program’s return to the hallowed ground of Camp Tontozona.

Or was it the Magic Kingdom he was talking about?

If you listened to Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, you might think the latter.  “There is a mystical and magical place just minutes east of Payson, where legends were born and dreams came true,” Evans offered at the announcement that ASU football would be returning to his little town in the high country.  “For nearly half a century it spawned a winning tradition that reached near mythological proportions.”

Whoa, Nellie!

The first part of that sounds suspiciously like a television commercial for Disneyland, and then wraps up like something from Harry Potter.

Such is the aura of Camp Tontozona, the pine-covered site of ASU football’s pre-season practices for more than four decades, where a football field was carved out of a scenic basin surrounded by lush foliage and picturesque mountains.

But for all its beauty, it was also the site of grueling drills and harsh penalties that included runs up the most imposing of those beautiful mountains, the one that came to be known as Mount Kush.  It was named after the man that brought the first ASU team up the hill and converted the former retreat into a camp that would provide solitude and an opportunity for his teams to focus on the job at hand – and bond as a well-disciplined unit.

Frank Kush began using the 36-acre camp site in 1960, holding three practices a day for 11 days, and teams continued to make the trek up to Payson until 2008, when Dennis Erickson decided to keep practices on campus.

Since those days several decades ago, technology has advanced well beyond the capabilities of the services at the camp.  The remote location of the area makes it impossible to get reception for cell phones and other communications equipment. (See 3-1-12 phxfan article)

That problem, and a number of other upgrade issues, are going to require money – about $150,000, say school officials.

A campaign dubbed “Return to Camp T” has been initiated and, if the money is raised by June 1, Graham will take the troops up to the camp for practices from Aug. 14 through Aug. 18, wrapping up with a scrimmage on the 18th.  If it takes longer than that, they’ll look ahead to the 2013 season.

You can get in on the action for as little as a hundred bucks – which will get you a bumper sticker.  Go to:

Mayor Evans had good reason to be giddy about the announcement.  It means an economic boost for his community, but also re-connects Payson to the ASU community.

“Even though it is only just over an hour from the Valley,” he said, “Camp Tontozona put a world-class athletic program in touch with our little piece of rural Arizona and, more importantly, gave all of rural Arizona a claim to cheer for a winning program.”

That last part remains to be seen.  Graham has inherited a program that doesn’t resemble the one that Kush brought with him each year, one that compiled a 176-54-1 record during those years and, from 1969 to 1971, set a school record with a 21-game winning streak.

The program Graham has stepped into hasn’t had a winning season in three years and needs every advantage he can muster.  This might be one of his better ideas in that regard.

“Coach Frank Kush had a vision,” he reminded those at yesterday’s press conference.  “It worked then and it will again.”

I don’t think we can take that to the bank just yet… but it’s a nice thought.

(Photo: ASU archives)