The emperor’s end - East Valley Tribune: Sports

The emperor’s end

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Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004 6:59 am | Updated: 5:39 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

October 10, 2004

The biggest sports story in local history took place 25 years ago this week.

In a move that stunned fans, Arizona State officials ousted Frank Kush, the most successful and most popular figure in town, from his job as the Sun Devils’ football coach.

Fred Miller, the athletic director and Kush’s close friend, suspended Kush on Oct. 13, 1979, after he decided the legendary coach was lying to him about whether he’d punched an unremarkable punter named Kevin Rutledge during a game at Washington the previous season.

Miller and an assistant coach said Kush at first said he wasn’t near Rutledge on the field.

Miller also had developed information that Kush was urging his assistant coaches to cover up facts in the matter.

Kush later dropped his fight to get his job back and accepted a cash settlement.

Time has a way of healing, or at least minimizing, old wounds. So in 1996, a year after Kush was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame, ASU officials gave Kush a job in the athletic department and named the field in Sun Devil Stadium in his honor.

The decision sparked only a few protests and the issue passed rather quietly.

People who weren’t living in Arizona at the time, however, can’t fathom the turmoil surrounding the Kush matter and the depth of emotion it generated 25 years ago.

Death threats were made against figures in the case who were perceived as anti-Kush, none more so than Miller, who had live-in police and had to have officers escort his daughter to McClintock High School.

Gary Bouck, the first player to come forward and say he’d seen the incident, said he once went to cash a check, and the teller replied, "Are you related to that liar?"

The emotional heights were reached mostly by boosters and off-campus fans, not so much from people in the university community.

The Sun Angel Foundation, the booster group that included some of the most powerful people in Arizona, took back plans to build a golf course for ASU (though they went ahead several years later).

One of the group’s leading officials said ASU should henceforth "consult the powers that be" when making such major decisions as ousting Kush.

A leading state legislator intoned gravely that Miller and university president John Schwada were the ones who should be fired.

Other scandals relating to the football program surfaced, including a bogus-credit scheme that involved several players and — according to the NCAA, which put the program on probation — Kush himself.

The whole saga affected a host of people, even uprooted them, and profoundly affected ASU and its image.

As the smoke was clearing, a syndicated comic strip had a week’s worth of fun mocking "Enormous State University" boosters who were pleading for mercy for a coach who had taken a pistol shot at a kicker who’d missed a chip shot.

A joke about ASU’s academic standards even found its way into the early years of "The Simpsons."

Kush’s coaching staff was scattered across the country. Miller was fired, as a way to appease angry football boosters, by Schwada, the same person who gave Miller the goahead to suspend Kush.

GOD-LIKE FIGURE

Why such emotion?

Simply put, Kush was a god-like figure to some. In a city with few other sports options, Kush’s teams went 62-9 and produced five bowl winners from 1970-75.

On top of this, as Miller would say later, "We banged the drum hard at creating the mystique of the Sun Devils. We were very successful.

"In college athletics, you sell the coach," he said ruefully, "The trouble is, some coaches believe it."

His assistant, John Wadas, once said, "We created a monster."

Miller managed to stay on at ASU for several years as a professor. Then he became athletic director at San Diego State. Today, he is 73 and living in Portland, Ore.

Though Miller jokes, "I don’t have any plans to run for public office in Arizona," he also says, "I don’t have any regrets" about his actions in his lonely role as disciplinarian.

"But it short-circuited a great career at ASU. We were rocking and rolling.

"To have it all turned upside down by one individual’s refusal to come to grips with reality, that’s the sad part."

The uproar also affected Gene Felker, the director of the Sun Angel Foundation, who was at the 1978 game at Washington and saw the incident.

Because of the sensitivities involved, he says today he felt "caught in the middle." He resigned from the Sun Angels in 1981.

As for Kush, had he admitted a possible mistake in the matter, it’s conceivable he could have still been coaching in college, maybe even at ASU, rather than taking a long, winding coaching road through various pro leagues.

But his college days were over. He finished with a college record of 176-54-1.

Like Kush himself, who was an undersized lineman at Michigan State, his teams were smallish, quick and — above all — tough.

If he’d continued coaching in college and had averaged seven wins a season, he’d now have about 350. Bobby Bowden, the winningest major college coach, has 345 and is the same age as Kush (75).

"We could have been kings of the hill," Felker says. "Frank and Bobby Bowden could have been fighting it out."

Because of all of this, plus broken friendships such as the one between Kush and Miller, "It makes me sick to think about it," Felker says.

With the 25th anniversary of his ouster approaching, Kush declined comment, saying, "The less said, the better.

"It’s all bygones, history. There are a hell of a lot better things to talk about than old Frank Kush."

On the 10th anniversary, he insisted, "I never punched the kid."

Perhaps the closest he’s come to a mea culpa came in a 1996 Los Angeles Times story on his work at Arizona Boys Ranch (now Canyon State Academy).

Though he didn’t comment on the Rutledge matter, the story said Kush "admitted he ruined careers, pushed too hard at times" but that he believed his intentions were sincere.

"I’m not saying everything I did was appropriate," Kush said in the story. "Don’t get me wrong. But what I’m saying is what I did. . . my purpose was to get you to be a better football player."

Rutledge, now 45 and living in Tucson, declined to return messages left through his lawyer.

In the same Times story, Rutledge blasted ASU’s decision to name its football field after Kush, saying, "It’s like naming a field after O.J. Simpson."

"It shows some of the highpowered boys in the Valley are trying to make amends to a guy they worshipped and thought didn’t get a fair deal."

By a 5-3 vote, a civil jury rejected Rutledge’s claim that Kush punched him. Normally, this would have been ruled a hung jury, but lawyers for both sides —

not wanting to replay the trial — had agreed in advance to accept a majority vote.

DIFFERENT TIMES

If such an incident happened today, it likely would be handled much differently.

For example, Wadas, Miller’s assistant, questions the soundness of advice on both sides of the Kush matter.

In fact, Miller’s lead lawyer, Paul Eckstein admits "the worst mistake I ever made in the practice of law" occurred in the case.

He went along with Schwada’s edict not to give a reason for suspending Kush, which would have triggered a public hearing on the matter. So, after Kush’s final game — a big win over Washington in which Kush was carried on and off the field by players — Miller declined comment in front of group of frenzied sports reporters.

"He was absolutely crucified," Eckstein says.

Though Miller changed tactics and went public with statements from assistant coaches indicating a Kush cover-up, Miller never recovered from the initial legal gaffe, Eckstein says.

As for Kush’s side, virtually everyone interviewed for this story wondered why Kush took such a hard line on whether he made contact with Rutledge.

Eckstein thinks Kush might have been able to deny striking Rutledge, as long as he was careful to instruct players and coaches to tell what they knew.

Neil Cumsky, one of Miller’s attorneys, recalls a meeting between lawyers where all Kush’s side had to do was admit a mistake.

"Everybody tried to avoid the situation going where it did," he says.

Says Miller, "We would have settled up and moved on."

Warren Platt, one of Kush’s lawyers, said such apologies weren’t as common then as today.

"The world has changed," Platt says. "The first thing you do whenever you do something wrong is you confess.

"The media expects this. Then, once you apologize, you let bygones be bygones."

No doubt, the role of the media also would be different today. Back then, the story was largely covered by the sports media, many of whose members made no pretense they considered Kush their buddy.

That’s why, in a remarkable series of televised news conferences after Kush was suspended, reporters grilled Miller and lobbed softballs at Kush.

Some thought more people with news experience should have been covering the episode.

"Sports writers shouldn’t have been covering that deal," Felker says today.

Wadas once said, "I think the press was the biggest evil of all. The writers had built him up, then had to justify why they built him up.

"The media was out of control."

Today, says Miller, "I think the media is more objective today. In that day, everyone was more of a cheerleader, caught up in the mystique (of the Sun Devils).’’

Robert Hing, the attorney who represented Rutledge in the trial, isn’t so sure.

"The sports media is so dependent on the coach giving them access," he says.

HONORING KUSH

About 300 former players turned out to honor Kush when ASU renamed the field in his honor in 1996.

The verdict, however, wasn’t unanimous.

"I can’t believe they named the field after him," says Bouck, who says he was taken into a darkened room and questioned by Kush and Cavanagh about the Rutledge matter. ("I told them exactly what they wanted to hear, that I didn’t see anything.")

Hing sent a letter of protest to Lattie Coor, then the ASU president, listing the transgressions of Kush’s program. He never got a reply.

Miller said he met Kush earlier this year at a banquet and feels he’s reached a "reasonable peace" with him.

"I kind of blanched" at the news of the field’s naming, "knowing what I know. It gives me pause in terms of the ethics of the university."

Yet the more common reaction undoubtedly came from Cumsky, who attended last week’s Cardinals game and found himself staring at one of the signs saying, "Frank Kush Field."

"I looked at it and thought, ‘That’s appropriate. That’s the way it should have ended up,’ ’’ said Cumsky. "His achievements outshone the small period of problems.

"He had a bad episode, but he had an amazing career."

Where are they now? Frank Kush: The winningest football coach in ASU history went on to coach in Canada, the NFL and USFL.

He is now 75 and director of football development at ASU, where the football field is named for him.

Fred Miller:

Oversaw the boom in ASU sports in the 1970s as athletic director and built what some regarded as the nation’s best on-campus sports facilities. He is now 73, retired and living in Portland, Ore.

Kevin Rutledge:

Filed the lawsuit in 1979 alleging Kush punched him after a punt in the Washington game in 1979 and harassed him out of a scholarship. He is now 45 and working in the insurance business in Tucson.

Gordon Rutledge: Kevin’s father was the driving force behind the lawsuit. He is deceased.

John Schwada: ASU president at the time gave the go-ahead to Miller to suspend Kush, then fired Miller to appease angry boosters.

Schwada, who kept a low profile during the affair, is deceased.

Rick Lynch: Booster and summer-time employer of ASU athletes told players he had befriended to tell the truth about what they knew (though he did not know Rutledge). He is deceased.

John Wadas: Miller’s longtime assistant at ASU and San Diego State. He is now 60 and director of the San Diego Historical Society.

Bob Owens: Was among three assistant coaches who, according to ASU lawyers, said that Kush told them "to lie and perjure" themselves, if necessary, to cover up facts in the episode.

Owens took over from the suspended Kush as interim head coach. He is now 67 and a professor of physical education at Pasadena City College.

Gene Felker: Left his job as director of the Sun Angel Foundation, ASU’s biggest booster group, because — as a witness to the Kush-Rutledge incident — he was "caught in the middle."

He went on to work for the NFL’s alumni group. He is now 76 and promotes prostate health awareness from his office in Mesa.

Gary Bouck: Drew scorn from boosters when he emerged as the first player to say he saw Kush take a swing at Rutledge. He is 47, lives in Southern California and is an executive for a large construction firm.

Bryan Caldwell: Like Bouck, he met Miller at a boarded-up gas station to give Miller his view of the incident, prompting Miller to drop his pro-Kush stance and recommend his old friend be suspended.

Caldwell, who played in the NFL, is now 44, lives in the Valley and inspects underground utility lines.

Harry Cavanagh: Kush’s friend and lawyer was the leading force behind Kush’s hang-tough strategy. He is now 81 and semi-retired.

Al Luginbill: A Kush assistant at the time, he went on to be the head coach for San Diego State and for the XFL’s Los Angeles Extreme, who won the title in the league’s only season.

Luginbill is 58, lives in Chandler and is part-owner of a pro-football scouting service.

Paul Eckstein: Miller’s lead lawyer went on to serve as prosecutor for the Legislature’s impeachment of Gov. Evan Mecham in the 1980s. He is 64 and practicing law in Phoenix.

Bruce Allen: The graduate assistant gave a sworn statement that he accidentally witnessed an incident that became the core of ASU’s "serious personal misconduct" charge against Kush. He is now 47 and general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Neil Cumsky: Was the young lawyer for Miller who rushed to Allen’s Los Angeles home minutes ahead of Kush and Cavanagh, wanting to know if Allen would give another statement.

Allen stuck by his original statement, which was believed to be a major factor in Kush dropping his attempt to get his job back and accepting a settlement.

Cumsky is now 54 and working in real estate.

Warren Platt: Was Kush’s lawyer in the unsuccessful civil lawsuit filed by Kevin Rutledge. He is 61 and practices law in Phoenix.

Robert Hing: Rutledge’s lawyer in the same lawsuit is 71 and practicing law in Scottsdale.

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