The Arizona State football team begins packing today for its annual trek up the hill to Payson, where the players will begin practice Wednesday at Camp Tontozona, and the coaches will continue looking for ways to turn things around after a disappointing 2015 season.
But it’s hard to tell just how much they will be able to use the iconic pre-season football camp northeast of Payson that ASU coaching legend Frank Kush set up back in the ’60s. A wet-weather forecast for most of the week could force the team into town, where they have the option to play on artificial turf at Ramsey Park.
Temperatures will swing each day between the mid-70s and mid-80s, which is a big reason the camp was established in the first place, getting the players out of the desert heat. But Saturday, when the final practice is scheduled and is a big draw for thousands of fans who want to get a close look at what’s in store this season, the forecast is for sunshine.
But there’s more to it than just getting away from the 100-degree temps. Tontozona is an idyllic retreat where football is the only item on the agenda 24/7.
The camp is located on 36 acres of towering pines amid scenic mountains, adjacent to the Tonto National Forest (thus the name Tontozona, which combines the first part of the forest name with the final letters of the state). There are waterfalls, swimming holes, and the clear-running Tonto Creek is just a short walk away.
What can NOT be found there are electronic distractions for the players. They are unplugged from the outside world for the full five days.
Until recently, even the coaches didn’t have cell-phone communication. A fund-raising campaign four years ago raised $150.000, which was matched in a donation from the White Mountain Sun Devil Club alumni chapter, to upgrade the outdated facilities that needed to be brought into the digital age so that cell phones and other communication devices could be used by the coaches.
There were no cell phones, or even faxes, when Kush established the camp in 1960. Nonetheless, he knew that a high-mountain retreat was what his players needed to be able to focus on football and use the time as a bonding experience.
During Kush’s 22 years directing the program, he compiled a 176-54-1 record, posted an undefeated season and won multiple conference crowns, and made a couple of Rose Bowl appearances. He has always attributed the work accomplished each season at Tontozona as a significant factor in the success of his teams.
The pilgrimage to Payson was stopped in 2008, when then-coach Dennis Erickson brought the practices back to campus. But Todd Graham reinstated the tradition when he took over the reins for the 2012 season.
“Coach Kush had a vision,” he said at the time. “It worked well then, and it will again.”
It was working really well for awhile as Graham posted back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. But not so well last year, when the Sun Devils were unable to come up with a winning season. They finished the 2015 campaign 6-7 in a season when they were projected by some analysts to have a shot at making it into the College Football Playoffs.
During Graham’s first four seasons, he would begin practice in Tempe and head up the hill after a week or so. But this year the first pre-season practice will be held at Tontozona. Players will move into the cabins tomorrow, begin workouts Wednesday, and return to campus after the Saturday practice.
A solitary focus on football is what’s needed right now. Graham has to find a starting quarterback after the graduation of Mike Bercovici, replace four starters lost on the offensive line, and re-build a defense that was considered one of the worse in Division I last year.
Which is why the pre-season media poll has the Sun Devils projected for a fifth-place finish in the Pac-12 South.
It will take more than a week at Tontozona to get ready for the Sept. 3 opener with Northern Arizona.
But it’s a great way to start the process.
Just ask Frank Kush.