Video by Andrew Ybanez | Assistant Photo Editor
PAYSON, Arizona — At least momentarily, the ASU football team was back in 1975, with coach Frank Kush in the middle of the huddle directing another Sun Devil team at Camp Tontozona, players following intently with every word.
Then, the huddle breaks, and as new stars D.J. Foster and Taylor Kelly stand up and walk back to their cabins, there is an eerie feeling of hope and nostalgia with the young Sun Devils embracing the tradition of the past.
Kush was the one who created the tradition of Camp Tontozona, bringing players up to Payson since 1960. His legend is still remembered through “Mount Kush,” where he would force players to run up and down the hill multiple times after misbehaving. Kush, who led ASU to a 176-54-1 record and undefeated seasons in 1970 and 1975, is the face of tradition and the namesake of the field at Sun Devil Stadium.
Coach Todd Graham, however, is the new face on the block who has embraced the past and brought back the same toughness and style that made Kush’s Sun Devil teams great. Graham brought the team back to “Camp T” after being hired in 2012, with a goal to bring back tradition and a winning mentality to the Sun Devil program after the Dennis Erickson era.
As part of the tradition of being at Camp Tontozona, Graham brings back Kush to speak to the team after practice, something he calls unique and special.
“It was a really unique day today, getting to talk to coach Kush about (Camp Tontozona), how it was built and the heart and the soul that went into it,” he said. “All the championship teams he had come in through here, and he got to really talk to them about the relationships, and how this place is almost spiritual.”
The players also appreciate the tradition, as they get to learn a new perspective and hear from one of the best to have ever come though ASU.
“Just to hear the guy who built this place, and hear what (Kush) had to say about how much this place means to the Sun Devil family, Sun Devil community and just to keep the tradition alive, it means a lot to our players and our coaches and our fans,” Foster said.
Kush talked about many of the great teams he had come through Tontozona during his tenure (1958-79) and the sacrifices they made, Graham said.
“He talked a lot about the (1975 Sun Devil football) team, and that his (1973 Sun Devil football) team was probably the most talented, but the 1975 team was the one that went undefeated,” he said. “He talked about that (1975 team), that’s the best team. It’s the one that’s selfless, guys hold each other accountable.”
Graham said he sees the opportunity of bringing Kush back for camp as not only a benefit for players, but a benefit for himself as a coach.
“He’s awesome … if I could do half of what he’s done (at ASU), that would be good,” he said. “He likes that our program is about class and character, and exclamation point toughness.”
As coach, Graham has always emphasized Kush’s role in the history of the program and the significance he has on the school.
“(Kush) won 176 ball games, and when I first came (to ASU), there wasn’t even a picture of him on the football field,” Graham said. “I hope that if I win even 76 (games), that they’ll have a picture of me on the floor. I think it’s so important that we honor the past and the people that come before us.”
Like Kush before him, Graham is focused on establishing a winning mentality and a tradition of championships.
“When you have a tradition, a winning tradition, and you compete for championships, you can ask one question in recruiting, and that’s it. Winning, and tradition of winning championships is how you recruit, period. It’s not a sales pitch,” he said.
- The players came out and practiced in helmets but no pads for the first time during Camp Tontozona in anticipation of their scrimmage on Saturday.
- Freshman running back Kalen Ballage, who underwent an MRI on his back earlier this week, was in uniform for the first time at “Camp T” after being in sweats the previous two days. Ballage did not participate in any position drills.
- Redshirt freshman safety Marcus Ball took snaps with the first team defense for the first time at camp, wearing the green no-contact jersey. Graham said it was encouraging to see Ball out there after being injured for so long.
“Marcus is such a communicator, such a leader, so we’re obviously bringing him along slowly, but that was neat to have him out there,” he said.
- Redshirt junior safety Jordan Simone impressed yet again on Friday, making his third interception in as many days. Simone has seen snaps with the first- and second-team defense.
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Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the number of undefeated seasons the ASU football team has had.