When Frank Kush died Thursday at age 88, his obituaries featured his role in transforming Arizona State into a national football power and a university during his two decades there.’
He then had his Woody Hayes moment and punched punter Jeff Rutledge on the sidelines and was fired a year later in 1979. His players carried him off the field after his last game.
The way his career ended was obscured over the years by the memories of how he built Arizona State with his hard-nosed style of coaching.
Also overlooked was the fact that Kush leaving Arizona State wound up starting a series of events that helped lead to John Elway spending his career in Denver and ending up as the team’s general manager.
Kush was coaching the Baltimore Colts in 1983 when they had the first pick in the draft, and Elway was the obvious choice. But he let it be known he didn’t want to play in Baltimore.
Most people assumed Elway didn’t want to play for a team owned by Bob Irsay, whose own mother once told a reporter he was a “devil on earth.’’
That may have been a factor, but the bigger reason was that Elway’s father, Jack Elway, a college coach in his day, didn’t want his son playing for Kush.
Whether it was personal or whether he didn’t think Elway would thrive playing for Kush was never really explained.
The Colts’ general manager at the time was Ernie Accorsi, who was willing to trade him but wasn’t going to give him away. He wanted three first-round picks — one in the top ten (because he would have drafted Dan Marino) and two seconds. As it turned out, he didn’t need a top-ten pick for Marino as he fell to the bottom of the first round.
The only team in the league with three firsts was San Diego, but general manager Johnny Sanders, who was willing to give two firsts, refused to give up the fifth pick.
Sanders took Billy Ray Smith with the fifth pick and while he was a good player, he wasn’t good enough to justify losing Elway. Imagine Elway playing in the Air Coryell offense. The Chargers would have won Super Bowls.
Maybe that would have helped the Chargers get a new stadium and they wouldn’t be on their way to Los Angeles. And Don Coryell, who departed after the 1986 season, would likely be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The only executive willing to give up three first rounders was Al Davis of the Raiders. He only had one first rounder but was willing to part with one the following year and thought he had a deal with Chicago for the sixth pick in the 1983 draft. The deal suddenly fell through. The Raiders always felt the league blocked the deal to keep Elway out of Oakland.
So Accorsi had no other options and drafted Elway, dismissing his threat to play baseball. Accorsi felt that after a summer of riding the buses in the minor leagues, Elway would have turned up for training camp.
We’ll never know because Irsay stepped in without telling Accorsi and traded him to Denver. Irsay didn’t want to pay Elway the asking price of five years for $5 million. Irsay got only Chris Hinton (the Broncos’ first-round pick), their 1984 first rounder that turned out to be Ron Solt and journeyman quarterback Mark Herrmann. And the Broncos agreed to host the Colts in two exhibition games to give them big paydays.
It was a steal of a deal.
The rest is history. Elway became a Hall of Famer in Denver and now runs the team. Accorsi left the Colts and built playoff teams in Cleveland and Super Bowl teams with the New York Giants.
The Colts left for Indianapolis on a snowy night in 1984, Kush was fired after the 1984 season and the Colts lost for most of the next decade and a half before they drafted Peyton Manning in 1998.
Kush spent a year coaching in the USFL and then retired.
By 2000, Arizona State was ready to let bygones be bygones. Kush was hired as a special assistant to the ASU athletic director, and there is now a large bronze statue of Kush outside Sun Devil Stadium. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as a coach in 1995.
ASU is now the largest university in the country, with more than 60,000 students enrolled at the Tempe campus, and Kush played a big role in making the school what it is today.
Whether Kush’s dictatorial style would work in today’s world will never be known. But I covered his first two years as the Colts coach, and his practices weren’t any tougher than typical NFL practices of that day. Maybe he mellowed. Maybe he adjusted.
Kush suffered from dementia in his later years, possibly from the blows he took as a 150-pound defensive lineman at Michigan State from 1950-52.
He was a tough man for tough times.