Today marks the opening of preseason football practice at Camp Tontozona, the pine-covered site near Payson that was established more than a half-century ago by Arizona State coaching legend Frank Kush and today is recognized as one of the premier practice facilities in all of college football.
With the exception of four years during the Dennis Erickson era, during which the team stayed in Tempe to practice, the Sun Devils have made the trek to Tontozona an annual tradition. Current head coach, Todd Graham, resurrected the tradition when he took over the program in 2012.
And Coach Kush will once again be with the team as they use his creation to better focus on their season preparation, free from outside distractions, and begin in earnest the bonding process that will enable them to withstand the pressures and challenges of another college season.
This time, however, ASU’s winningest coach will be there in spirit only. The 88-year old Kush passed away June 22.
There’s no way the players and coaches can make it through this session at ‘Camp T’ without thinking about his legacy and the incredible success during his 22 years directing the program – each of which started on a football field carved out of a scenic basin surrounded by lush foliage and picturesque mountains.
The 36-acre camp borders the Tonto National Forest, which provides the first two syllables of the name. The state of Arizona adds the last two.
Kush founded the camp in 1960 and went on to compile a 176-54-1 record and a couple of Rose Bowl appearances.
Maybe Erickson should have put more stock in the value of starting the season at Tontozona. The coach who had won two national championships at Miama couldn’t replicate the feat in Tempe and was fired after five seasons and a final 31-30 record.
Graham, who is cut from the same no-nonsense, disciplinarian mold as Kush became good friends with the coaching icon. Memories of his friend will surely flood over this week’s practices.
“I cherish the time I’ve gotten to spend with Coach Kush,” he said shortly after Kush’s passing. “It was special. Going to camp Tontozona is going to be very special because he basically built that place.”
Last spring, when the school announced plans to return again to Camp T, Graham made clear the significance of making that trek to the high country: “What makes college football special is its traditions, and for ASU, Camp Tontozona is one of our greatest traditions. I love taking my teams to Camp T because it’s where our traditions and our season begins.
“Coach Frank Kush’s vision continues, and I am proud to keep the tradition going.”
That lasting contribution to the Sun Devil football tradition has been the subject of various tributes leading up to the team’s departure for camp yesterday, the most visible being the signing of an ASU flag to be transported to camp.
Beginning July 20, fans were invited to stop by and add their signatures to a flag that will be carried to the top of Mount Kush by Graham and the team captains, and planted there as a lasting reminder of the man that made it all possible. ‘Mount Kush’ is an adjacent mountain that was used by the coach for extra conditioning, and often as a means of ‘correcting’ the attitudes of those players who fell into disfavor with the coach.
On Saturday, the team and fans will honor a moment of silence before the final practice.
And the second home game of the season, Sept. 9 against San Diego State, will be dedicated to the man who started it all 57 years ago.
(2016 Photo: ASU Athletics)