When news broke Thursday of Frank Kush’s passing, memories quickly began to surface, spanning from those who played for him or watched his teams at Arizona State, all the way up to children who high-fived him at ASU events during his final years.
As a head coach, Kush’s approach was hard-nosed and he settled for nothing short of the absolute best from every player regardless his role on the team. His philosophies resulted in teams that dominated the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) by way of unmatched conditioning and toughness and a produced a stretch of success for Sun Devil football that hasn’t since been matched and may never be bested.
Beyond college football, the College Football Hall of Fame head coach has countlessly been credited with help setting a foundation of discipline, integrity and hard work that benefitted many of his former student-athletes in life after sports. He also is revered as a father figure to many of his pupils and throughout his life never shied away from a handshake, small talk and a few jokes.
In fact, to have known the spectacularly snarky yet still genuinely grandfatherly version of Kush makes it difficult to believe that he was the no-nonsense disciplinarian he was as a head coach. Fans of all ages who spent even a few passing exchanges with him at events, tailgates and games will agree that he was completely approachable and regardless the setting was the life of the Sun Devil party.
The legacy of Frank Kush the man lives on not only through his family but the hundreds of athletes he mentored as well as the lives he touched of friends, colleagues and fans that truly adored him.
Similarly, the legacy of Frank Kush the football coach will resonate forever at Arizona State as his tenure at Tempe remains unmatched in Sun Devil lore and deserves every bit of the Hall of Fame accolades his coaching career received.
We all know that Frank Kush was without even a split second of doubt the best coach in Arizona State football history – but just how successful was he? How does what he did compare to what has since been seen at ASU?
The numbers and superlatives remain staggering and at this point are generally inconceivable; ASU’s success as a football program, its athletic department as a whole, the university in general, the Fiesta Bowl and the expansion of the Pac-8 to the Pac-10 Conference all have roots that trace back to Frank Kush’s influence.
To this very day, Kush has still accounted for nearly 30% of ASU’s all-time victories through his 176-54-1 career tally at Arizona State. By drastic contrast, Bruce Snyder (58 wins) is the only Arizona State head coach to have won more than 40 games at ASU.
During Kush’s peak years of the 1970s, ASU won 10 or more games in five of the first six seasons of the decade. In the 41 seasons since then, ASU has registered just six total double-digit win seasons.
Kush also guided Arizona State to eight outright conference championships. Since his departure, ASU has enjoyed just two such seasons – 1986 and 1996. Additionally, Kush guided ASU to four top-10 finishes in the Associated Press poll and since his coaching career ended the Sun Devils have only registered three top-10 rankings in the final AP poll.
In his spectacular run from 1970-73, ASU compiled a dominant 43-4 record with four consecutive bowl victories. This century, ASU has only had four seasons with four or fewer losses (2004, 2007, 2013-14).
Beyond Kush at ASU, the fewest losses in a four-year span is 12 from 1980-83 – though that stretch largely consisted of Kush’s recruits from his final signing classes of the late-1970s. The fewest losses over a four-year span once Kush’s recruits were no longer in the program is 14 from 1985-88 and 1986-89. As successful as Todd Graham was in his early years at Arizona State, his first four teams compiled 19 total losses.
A Wildcat killer unlike any before or after him, Kush won nine straight against Arizona from 1965-73 and 13 of 14 from 1965-78. Also, many of those rivalry matchups weren’t the nail biters we have grown to expect between the Sun Devils and Wildcats as the 1967-68 wins were by a combined score of 77-14, while the 1971-73 wins – ones headlined by Danny White, Woody Green and company – had a combined score of 124-40, including a 31-0 shutout in 1971. Overall, Kush boasted a 16-5 cumulative record against the University of Arizona.
In terms of advancing players to the professional ranks, Kush produced 11 first-round NFL Draft picks, with only 12 combined additional first-round selections having come from ASU before and after his tenure. He was also responsible for recruiting and/or coaching each of the five players ASU has ever had be selected higher than 10th overall in the NFL Draft.
Though some look back at ASU’s time in the WAC with the backhanded compliment as the proverbial “big fish in a small pond”, Kush’s Devils seemed to shine brightest against their toughest adversaries as Arizona State notched crucial postseason victories against major programs such as North Carolina, Florida State, Missouri, Pittsburgh and Nebraska.
Statistically, some of Kush’s single-season efforts are nothing short of amazing and comparatively stand the test of time.
In 1972, ASU rushed for an average of 344.4 yards per game – a total that would have fallen about five yards per game short of the national lead for 2016 – but the Sun Devils still managed nearly 2,300 passing yards that season as well.
The next season, the Sun Devils topped the 3,000-yard passing mark as a team for the first time in school history (3,077) but still averaged nearly 300 rushing yards per game with a total of 3,576, or a per-game average of 298.0 yards. ASU’s total yardage of 6,563 for the year has since gone unmatched and may never be surpassed.
Over a seven-season span from 1967-73, ASU averaged 35.0 points per game or more each season – ASU has only posted six seasons averaging 35.0 points per game or more since 1973 (three of which were Todd Graham’s first three seasons at ASU).
His squads weren’t just defined by high-powered offenses, as in 11 of his seasons at Arizona State his Sun Devil defense allowed an average of fewer than 275.0 yards per game. In 2016, only two FBS teams allowed fewer yards (Alabama and Michigan, both 261.8). Also, in nine seasons Kush’s Devils allowed fewer than 14 points per game – in 2016 only Alabama allowed fewer than 14.0 points per game.
These are but a few of the highlights of a coaching career that included more than anyone could ever count. A true icon of Arizona State University, Frank Kush undoubtedly left an indelible mark in Tempe and achieved a standard of excellence and achievement on the gridiron all Sun Devil fans hope return to the field that bears his name.