I went to school with Art Malone, but never met the man. Arizona State University was a big school, even back then in the late ’60s.
But, like other Arizona State students in that era, I felt like I knew him well because he was such a big part of the Sun Devil football program – and played a significant role in the growing legend of head coach, Frank Kush, whose statue today sits in front of Sun Devil Stadium.
It’s kind of like all those ASU students who felt a bond with Pat Tillman, the football hero who went on to become the military hero, because they were on campus during the time he played for the Sun Devils.
Art Malone, one of ASU’s greatest running backs, passed away Friday and ASU made the announcement yesterday. No cause of death was given.
He was just 64 years old. Like Tillman, his passing was much too soon.
Malone didn’t walk away from a professional football career to join the U.S. Army, like Tillman did, only to be killed in action in Afghanistan in 2004. But Malone was embraced by the ASU community for his exciting running style, his record-breaking performances in the Sun Devil backfield, and his winning personality off the field.
He came from humble beginnings in the little Arizona town of Eloy, where he excelled in both football and track at Santa Cruz High School and caught the attention of Kush, who had taken over the ASU program in 1958. The head coach offered him a scholarship in 1966 to come to Tempe and help keep ASU football on the national map.
That climb from a dusty little town in the middle of the Arizona desert to the national stage for college football was another thing that endeared Malone to his fans.
The Sun Devils were still playing in the Western Athletic Conference at that time and, with Malone in the backfield, they began a run of five straight conference championships, from 1969 through 1973. Malone set the stage in 1968, the first year he got much time on the field, when he rushed for 1,431 yards, carrying the ball almost 24 times a game.
His five straight 100-yard games that year set a school rushing record.
He ran for 439 yards in just two games, consecutive contests against New Mexico and Utah.
The next year he didn’t have to carry the full load, since David Buchanan joined the ASU backfield, but he still piled up almost 800 years as the duo led ASU to its second straight 8-2 season and the first of its five consecutive conference titles. He left ASU with 2,649 yards and 28 touchdowns, seventh on the school’s all-time list..
Malone’s little brother, Benny, took over after he left the next year to begin a seven-year career in the NFL. Ben arrived on the ASU campus in 1971 and joined Woody Green in the ASU backfield to lead the Devils to conference crowns in 1971, ’72, and ’73 and set single-game rushing records in the process.
To say that the Malone family contributed in a huge way to ASU’s football success during that era would be an understatement.
Like Kush, who became ASU’s director for football development in 2000, Art Malone was welcomed back into the Sun Devil family after his pro career ended, and he spent 22 years working there in the Athletic Department before retiring about the same time Kush was arriving back on campus.
When the paths of both men crossed the first time, almost half a century ago, it was a time of abundance for ASU football. They both contributed in a major way to that success on the field.
Coach Kush is still with us, but memories of Art Malone are all we have now. But they’re great memories for those of us who were there to enjoy the glory days of ASU football, up close and personal.
Thank you, Art.
(Photo: ASU Archives)