The last time I had been to a game at Arizona State was back in 2014, and the opponent was Washington State. The Sun Devils needed a win over the Cougars that Saturday as they were in a three-way race for the PAC-12 South title. That day, the Sun Devils defeated the Cougars 52-31. Once again, a lot was on the line for this early 12:30 PST kickoff. A huge crowd was on hand to watch what I expected to be a track meet on the field. Walking up to the stadium I stopped at Sparky’s Touchdown Tailgate, where all kinds of fun activities were underway.
ARIZONA STATE FOOTBALL BEGINS
Arizona State began it’s football program in 1897. Frank M. Irish served as the first head football coach at the Territorial Normal School, renamed Tempe Normal School in 1903 and now known as Arizona State University. He served as the head coach for eight seasons compiling a 12-8 record. Arizona State played as an independent, before joining the Border Conference in 1931. ASU enjoyed moderate success in the conference, winning or sharing seven conference titles. In 1946, the team formerly known as the Bulldogs, became known as the Sun Devils. After a 30-year affiliation with the Border Conference, the Sun Devils made the move to the bigger Western Athletic Conference. The Sun Devils competed in the WAC for 16 years claiming or sharing six conference titles. In 1978, Arizona State made the move to the Pac-8, which has become the Pac-12, where they still play. Since moving to the Pac-12, the Sun Devils have won three conference championships, and appeared in two Rose Bowl Games.
Dan Devine took over a struggling football program in 1955. Devine compiled a record of 27–3–1, his .887 win percentage is still the best in coaching history at ASU. In 1957, his last season at ASU, the Devils went an unholy 10–0. In that last season, Devine’s team led the nation in both total and scoring offense, averaging just under 40 points per game. Devine went on to have successful stints at both the University of Missouri, Notre Dame and became the head coach of the Green Bay Packers in 1971.
THE FRANK KUSH ERA BEGINS
Frank Kush was hired in 1958 to replace Dan Devine. Kush had served three years on Devine’s staff and was known for being one of the most physically demanding coaches in the game. His daily football practices in the heat of the desert day are still legendary. One of his drills was known as “Bull in the Ring”, whereupon he would have the players form a circle. He would put a player in the middle, often a player he felt needed motivation, call out a uniform number, and blow his whistle. That player would charge the player in the middle and the two would engage in contact until Kush blew the whistle again. Whichever of the two players gave the best effort would go back to the circle, while the player “dogging it” would stay in until Kush decided he could quit. Former NFL and Arizona State player Curley Culp once broke a teammate’s facemask during this drill. Another of his drills (which was designed to see if his running backs could take punishment carrying the ball) consisted of having only a center, quarterback, and two running backs line up on offense, with no other offensive lineman. They would run running plays against the entire defense. Kush would run a running back into the line time and time again so he could get used to the pounding he would take in games. The most famous of Kush’s motivational techniques was called “Mount Kush.” Mount Kush was a steep hill near the Sun Devils’ practice facility with several large rocks, cacti, and no shade from the Arizona sun. If a player needed discipline in Kush’s opinion, that player would have to run up and down that hill numerous times.
His methods seemed to work. During his lengthy career in the desert, Kush compiled a record of 176–54–1, with only one losing season! In his first 11 years, he captured two conference titles and finished as runner-up five times. That success led to him accepting the head coaching job at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969. However, just five days later, Kush had a change of heart and stayed at Arizona State. Kush would then begin a memorable era in Sun Devil football history with five consecutive WAC championships, as the team won 50 of 56 games from 1969 to 1973. During this time, Arizona State won the 1970 Peach Bowl and the first three editions of the Fiesta Bowl. In 1974 the team dropped to 7–4. The Sun Devils bounced back the following year, going 12–0, capped by a thrilling 17–14 win over the Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. In that game Kush’s son Danny kicked three field goals, including the game winner.
The training methods Kush employed came into question in September 1979 when former Sun Devil Kevin Rutledge filed a $1.1 million lawsuit against the school, accusing Kush and his staff of mental and physical harassment that forced him to transfer. The most dramatic charge was that Kush had punched Rutledge in the mouth after a bad punt in a 1978 game against the Washington Huskies. After the lawsuit was filed, overzealous fans turned things ugly, as the insurance office of Rutledge’s father suffered a fire and the family’s attorney received multiple death threats. On October 13, 1979, Kush was fired as head coach for interfering with the school’s internal investigation into Rutledge’s allegations. Athletic director Fred Miller cited Kush’s alleged attempts to pressure players and coaches into keeping quiet. The decision came just three hours before the team’s home game against Washington. Kush was allowed to coach the game, with the Sun Devils pulling off an emotional 12–7 upset of the sixth-ranked Huskies. The win gave him a 3–2 record on the season, but all three victories would later be forfeited when it was determined that Arizona State had used an ineligible player.
Bruce Snyder was hired away from California in 1992 to resurrect a program that had been struggling. Snyder’s 58 wins and nine-year tenure as head coach at Arizona State each rank second in school history to marks set by Frank Kush. Snyder led ASU to four bowl games including a win in the 1997 Sun Bowl. More than 40 ASU players coached by Snyder were selected in the NFL draft, including seven in the first round and he was twice named Pac-10 coach of the year. His most memorable Sun Devil team was the 1996 unit, led by Jake Plummer at quarterback. The Sun Devils finished 11–1, highlighted by a season opening victory over top-ranked and two-time defending national champion Nebraska. Arizona State reeled off the third undefeated regular season in school history on their way to the 1997 Rose bowl, where they came within 19 seconds of a victory over Ohio State. Had they won, the Sun Devils would have likely won at least a share of the national championship, as they would have been the only undefeated major-conference team in the nation. In 2008, Snyder was diagnosed with stage four melanoma. He died less than a year later at his home in Phoenix.
ARIZONA STATE TRADITIONS
- Songs – The fight songs for Arizona State are “Maroon and Gold” and “Go Go Devils”. After a touchdown “Maroon and Gold” is played. After a field goal “Go Go Devils” is played. For big plays, a shortened version of either song is played.
- Mascot – Arizona State’s mascot is Sparky the Sun Devil. Sparky was adopted as ASU’s mascot in 1946 following a vote that was held to replace the Bulldog, the mascot at the time.
- Devil Walk – Prior to each home game, fans and the Sun Devil Marching Band welcomes the team inside Wells Fargo Arena as they head to the football stadium. At the conclusion of the event, the marching band performs a short concert.
- Marching Band – Arizona State fields a 300+ member marching band that performs at all home football games, bowl games, and the rivalry game with the University of Arizona In addition to halftime shows and stand tunes, the Sun Devil Marching Band always play the Arizona State fight songs and the Alma Mater.
RIVALS –THE DUEL IN THE DESERT
Arizona State has had a long and intense rivalry with Arizona. The football rivalry game between the schools is known as The Duel In The Desert and the trophy is the Territorial Cup. Arizona State won the first matchup in 1899, 11-2, but the University of Arizona has the all-time series lead, 49-40-1. The Sun Devils have recently enjoyed more success in the series, winning three of the last four.
Perhaps the most famous alumnus is Pat Tillman. He started his college career as a linebacker for the Sun Devils in 1994, when he secured the last remaining scholarship for the team. Tillman excelled as a linebacker at Arizona State, despite being relatively small for the position. As a junior, he helped his team go undefeated that season as well as helping them make it to the Rose bowl. In 1997, he was voted the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. Tillman majored in marketing and graduated in three and a half years with a 3.85 GPA. He also earned many academic awards including: the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award in 1996 and 1997; the Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1997; and the 1998 Sun Angel Student Athlete of Year. Tillman was selected as the 226th pick by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 NFL draft. Tillman moved over to play the safety position in the NFL and started ten of sixteen games in his rookie season. Tillman finished his career with totals of 238 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 3 interceptions for 37 yards, 3 forced fumbles, 12 pass deflections, and 3 fumble recoveries in 60 career games. In addition he also had 1 rush attempt for 4 yards and returned 3 kickoffs for 33 yards. In 2002 Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years from the Cardinals to enlist in the United States Army. Tillman later lost his life in 2004 in Afghanistan. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010.
FUN FACTS ABOUT SUN DEVIL FOOTBALL
* Sun Devils have won 17 conference titles.
* Arizona State plays all home games at Sun Devil Stadium.
* They own two national titles (1970, 1975)
* Mascot is “Sparky”
* Arizona State is 14-16-1 lifetime in bowl games.
- 2012 – Will Sutton, Defensive Tackle
- 2007 – Thomas Weber, Kicker
- 2006 – Zach Miller, Tight End
- 1996 – Juan Roque, Offensive Tackle
- 1987 – Randall McDaniel, Guard
- 1986 – Danny Villa, Tackle
- 1985 – David Fulcher, Safety
- 1984 – David Fulcher, Safety
- 1983 – Luis Zendejas, Kicker
- 1982 – Mike Richardson, Safety
- 1981 – Mike Richardson, Safety
- 1977 – John Jefferson, Wide Receiver
- 1975 – Mike Haynes, Cornerback
- 1973 – Woody Green, Running Back
- 1972 – Woody Green, Running Back
The fans got just what I expected. A fast and furious track meet. The Cougars opened the scoring on their first drive, when Anthony Gordon connected with Travell Harris on a 35-yard scoring strike. Jayden Daniels would later respond for the Sun Devils when he found Brandon Aiyuk in the clear on an 85-yard TD. Both Gordon and Daniels had banner days tossing the pigskin. Gordon threw for 466 yards and three scores, while Daniels threw for 363 yards with three TDs. The second half featured four lead changes, with Daniels proving to be the hero with a 17-yard touchdown run with 32 seconds left in the game, giving the Devils a 38-34 victory The two teams combined for 1,030 yards of total offense and 54 first downs. Daniels a true freshman quarterback continues to get better, week by week. “He’s just phenomenal,” said Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin, who had 137 yards and a touchdown rushing. “The way he goes through practice, you wouldn’t think he’s a freshman.” The win moved Arizona State into a four-way tie in the Pac-12 South.