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L.A. Expressk: The Valley Wxperiment : Kush May Change, but Not His Legend

Times Staff Writer

Everyone, including no less an institution than Sports Illustrated, says Frank Kush has mellowed.

Don’t believe it, says . . . Frank Kush.

Kush, the Simon Legree of football coaches, who brings his Arizona Outlaws to Pierce College on Saturday for a 5 p.m. United States Football League game with the Los Angeles Express, was on the line from Tempe, Ariz.

“I’ve been asked that question a number of times and I don’t think I’ve changed, per se,” Kush said. “If there is a change it’s in attitude. I think I always felt more responsibility toward the college player, to teach them to do things the right way.

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“You don’t have that same control with a professional player. There’s a certain maturity and self-response that a professional player has. That’s the way this team is and that’s the way it was when I was coaching in Canada and with the Colts in Baltimore and Indianapolis.”

The image of Kush is that of a Napoleon in coaching shorts, working his players mercilessly in the desert sun, smacking stragglers on the helmet or dragging offenders around by the face mask.

Kush used his boot camp methods to turn Arizona State into a major college power, driving his teams to winning records in 21 of 22 seasons. Critics couldn’t fault his record, so they attacked him from other directions.

Finally, midway through the 1979 season, Kush was fired and ridden out of Tempe on a rail that was disguised under the phrase “irregularities in the ASU football program.” Later he was sued by former Sun Devil punter Kevin Rutledge for alleged inhumane treatment. Kush was found innocent of the charges.

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After sitting out the the 1980 season at his home in Tempe, Kush went to Hamilton of the Canadian Football League and led the Tiger-Cats to an 11-4-1 record in 1980. He recrossed the border the following season to coach the Baltimore Colts, and after an 0-8-1 disaster in the strike-shortened season of 1982, he improved the Colts to 7-9 two years ago.

Things weren’t so great when owner Robert Irsay pulled up stakes in Baltimore and moved the Colts last season to Indianapolis, where the Colts went 4-11, so Kush jumped at the chance to return to Arizona last December after George Allen resigned.

Kush returned to the Valley of the Sun, where he is still tremendously popular, and seems to have the Outlaws headed in the right direction after a sputtering start. As always, Kush says he’s doing it his own way.

“It’s all football and I don’t think it makes any difference to a coach,” Kush said.

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Through his trials and travels, Kush kept his sense of humor and seems to have improved his relationship with the press.

At one stage of last season with the Colts, when told about a quarterback who had broken his hand by hitting it on an opponent’s helmet while throwing a pass, Kush cracked: “Hell, I’ve hit my hand on plenty of helmets and I haven’t broken it yet.”

There were a lot of disbelievers when word filtered out of Arizona this year that the old taskmaster has softened a bit.

Defensive end Fletcher Jenkins of the Express, who played for Kush that first year in Baltimore and relishes another chance to play against his former coach, has his doubts.

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“I never spoke to him in Baltimore,” Jenkins said, “because he was in has own little world. It was a circus that first year. He brought 250 guys to camp and no one knew what was going on.

“There were some good veterans there--like Roger Carr--who didn’t like it right away and wanted out. But I started every game for him (Kush) and made the all-rookie team.”

Kush was obviously rebuilding the Colts from the bottom up, and Jenkins had reason to believe he was part of the groundwork. He did more than dream in the off-season and reported to training camp with great expectations.

Then Kush waived him.

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“I don’t have any real bitterness or animosity,” Jenkins said. “Oh, it’s there somewhere and if you scratch it a little bit, it will come out. When Kush called me in, he said it wasn’t his decision. I thought he was the head coach. But I just said thanks and good luck, and I left.

“I saw how he treated some players while I was there and I didn’t like it. I’m glad I was there when he cut Holden Smith, the receiver from Cal. Holden dumped a Coke on Kush’s head. I think everybody liked that.”

But once again, whatever Kush’s methods are, his team is winning.

Sure, the Outlaws are only 7-9, but they’re making a run for the playoffs with three victories in four games. Last week, they slowed down the USFL’s hottest team, the Oakland Invaders, who had won seven straight games, 28-21.

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“We’ve been playing some exceptionally good football in spots,” Kush said, “but I still don’t feel we’ve put it all together. We’ve been a little inconsistent.

“There’s an adage that all coaches have about playing them one game at a time and that’s the way we’re approaching it now. We’re not concentrating on making the playoffs, we’re looking at the game at hand, and this week that’s Los Angeles.”

The Express, on the other hand, is going nowhere unless it’s into oblivion if new owners can’t be found for next season.

Jenkins would like to take a little extra satisfaction with him, wherever he’s going.

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