ASU’s Edwards won’t mess with sacred football tradition


Arizona State‘s new head football coach, Herm Edwards, has already managed to avoid a huge mistake made by one of his predecessors.

Edwards, who took over the program two months ago, is going to continue a sacred tradition started by Frank Kush back in 1960, one that was suspended in 2008 after Dennis Erickson took over the program and the school built an indoor practice facility on campus to substitute for leaving town for cooler temps.  The new head honcho just scheduled the team’s annual trip to Camp Tontozona, his first major decision after assembling his coaching staff.

When Edwards’ predecessor, Todd Graham, took over the program from Erickson following the 2011 season, he understood the significance of that annual trek up the hill to Payson, where players and coaches got away from everyday distractions and had a chance for a bonding experience that would carry the team into the start of a new season.

He supported the “Return to Camp Tontozona” fund-raising campaign in the summer of 2012 that raised the $150,000 that was needed to upgrade the outdated facilities and bring the camp into the digital age so that cell phones and other communication devices could be used by the coaches who needed to maintain contact with recruiting prospects during the week they would be away from campus.

The idyllic retreat  just east of Payson, near the rustic Kohl’s Ranch resort, borders the Tonto National Forest (which accounts for the first part of the camp’s name, followed by the tail end of ‘Arizona’) and is surrounded by picturesque mountains, bubbling springs, and tall pine trees.  Three waterfalls and clear-bottom swimming holes provide refreshing relief for the players after practices.

Payson-area residents also look forward to seeing the team bus arrive at summer’s end.  The time the team spends at camp gives locals, and other ASU fans who make the 90-minute drive up from the Valley below, a chance to take in a few practices and get to know the players and coaches.  A boost to the local economy is icing on the cake.

When Graham took over the program and announced he was re-starting the tradition, he said: “Camp T is one of the famous icons in the history of college football.  I wanted to take my first team there because the tradition begins at Tontozona, just as it did in 1960.”

Coach Kush, who passed away last June, credited a good portion of his success to being able to use the camp to help his players focus on their preparation for the season ahead.  During his 22 years as ASU head coach, he compiled a 176-54-1 record, posted an undefeated season and multiple conference crowns, and made a couple of Rose Bowl appearances.

“One of the reasons I returned to college football is because of the great traditions like Camp Tontozona,” Edwards explained in announcing his team would be making the trip to Camp T this year on Monday, Aug. 6, and practicing through Aug. 11.  “I’m anxious to take my first Sun Devil team to the legendary place where it all began with Coach Frank Kush’s vision.”

The 63-year-old coaching veteran spent most his career in the professional ranks, including eight years as an NFL head coach.  His last college coaching job was 30 years ago when he was an assistant at San Jose State.

As usual, Saturday will mark the final day of practice and is normally used to do some scrimmaging to give fans a little game-like experience to see what to expect from this years’ squad.  The final practice will be held in the morning because getting any late practice time in during that week is an iffy proposition since monsoon rains are a constant threat in the afternoons — the downside to life in the high country.

Jake Plummer, a former ASU quarterback in the mid-90’s who went on to play 10 years in the NFL, is one of the Pac-12 school’s best-known alumni.  He once explained the importance of Camp Tontozona this way:

“Camp Tontozona was simply about a bonding experience for us, especially as freshmen.  For me, it was my indoctrination to college football.  It culminated in a Rose Bowl for us in 1996 (his senior year).”

Now Edwards will try to use a tradition that began nearly 60 years ago to lead the Sun Devils back to Pasadena.