Arizona Football

Top five games between Arizona Wildcats and ASU Sun Devils in Frank Kush era


ASU coaching legend Frank Kush — the greatest coaching nemesis in Arizona Wildcats’ history — passed away Thursday at the age of 88.

Although Kush did not coach at ASU since 1979, he remained the figurehead for Arizona’s dislike for ASU in the football rivalry between the schools. Between 1965-1978, the Wildcats went 1-13 against Kush and ASU. In that 14-year span, the Wildcats lost six of seven games in Tucson by an average margin of 12.5 points.

The late Frank Kush honored Thursday on the Arizona Stadium jumbotron scoreboard (Arizona photo)

Kush was to Arizona what Lute Olson became to the Sun Devils — a force behind the domination of the in-state rival program.

Arizona was 5-16 overall against ASU with Kush as head coach.

Olson was 43-6 against the Sun Devils when he coached the Arizona basketball program from 1983 to 2007.

Both of them are two of the most legendary coaches in the state’s history.

The following is one opinion of the top five games played between ASU and Arizona during the Frank Kush era:

No. 5

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 27, ASU Sun Devils 24

DATE: Nov. 24, 1979

SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, 70,947 in attendance

This game signaled an awakening in the Arizona football program with its series against Arizona State, which was without Kush as its head coach for the first time since 1957. Although Kush was not on the sidelines, all of his players and the coaching staff he assembled were on the other side of the field.

Kush was dismissed five games into that 1979 season for interfering with the school’s internal investigation into allegations from punter Kevin Rutledge that Kush had punched him in the mouth after a bad punt in an Oct. 28, 1978, game against Washington.

The Sun Devils were 3-2 when Kush was dismissed. They finished 6-6 but had to forfeit five of the games after the conclusion of the season because of the use of ineligible players. Their record changed to 1-10.

Thanks to Arizona freshman place-kicker Brett Weber, who nailed a 27-yard field goal with no time left, there was no need for Arizona to beat the Sun Devils by forfeit.

Front page of The Arizona Daily Star after Arizona’s 27-24 win over the Sun Devils in 1979

A roughing-the-kicker penalty gave Weber a second chance for the victory. Weber, a barefooted kicker who was not listed on the Arizona pre-printed roster for the game, missed the first attempt from 38 yards. The roughing-the-kicker penalty enabled him to try again from 27 yards and he nailed it. An interception by Arizona’s Jack Housley off a Mark Malone pass set up the final sequence with Weber, who coach Tony Mason used as a replacement for regular kicker Bill Zivic. Mason made the switch after Zivic missed a 39-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter.

It was the Wildcats’ first win at Sun Devil Stadium since 1961, ending a losing streak of eight games in Tempe. The Wildcats accepted an invitation to return to Sun Devil Stadium to play in the Fiesta Bowl, in which it played Dan Marino and Pittsburgh. The Wildcats lost that game 16-10.

The end of the Kush era proved to be significant to the rivalry. Arizona held a 23-8 series advantage over ASU when Kush became the Sun Devils’ head coach in 1958. During Kush’s 21 years at ASU (1958-79), the Sun Devils turned the table on the Wildcats, owning a 16-5 record in that period. ASU won a record nine straight games against the UA from 1965 to 1973. Without Kush, ASU has gone 15-19-1 since against Arizona, which went nine years without a loss against their rivals from 1982-90.

Three fumbles by ASU enabled Arizona to take a 24-10 lead in the third quarter of the 1979 game, but the Sun Devils rallied to tie the game with 13:06 left in the game.

The Wildcats, who achieved their first winning record of 6-5-1 under Mason (in his third and final season in Tucson), were led by fullback Hubert Oliver’s 93 yards on 23 carries against ASU. Tailback Larry Heater also had 88 yards rushing for Arizona.

Arizona’s game against Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl was Mason’s last as he was fired amid alleged NCAA recruiting violations that ultimately led to the Wildcats serving a two-year probation in 1983 and 1984.

New Mexico coach Bob Davie, the former Notre Dame coach now head coach at New Mexico, was the linebackers coach for the Wildcats in the 1979 game. When Davie prepared Notre Dame to face ASU in 1998 at Sun Devil Stadium, he recounted driving back to Tucson with former Arizona assistant Ron Turner and celebrating the victory over the Sun Devils while on I-10.

No. 4

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 10, ASU Sun Devils 0

DATE: Nov. 30, 1974

SITE: Arizona Stadium, 40,782 in attendance (the last game between the rivals before the east section of Arizona Stadium was expanded)

The one loss for Kush in his 13-1 run against Arizona from 1965-78 was this dominating 10-0 victory for Jim Young and the Wildcats. It remains the last shutout by either team in the series. It also improved the Arizona’s season to 9-2 — the first nine-win season in the program’s history. The game, which was Arizona’s last win against a Kush-coached team, ended a nine-game losing streak against the Sun Devils. Kush and ASU shut out Arizona two times previously, including Kush’s first season with the Sun Devils in 1958, when they defeated the Wildcats 47-0 in Tucson.

Young, who coached Arizona from 1973 to 1976 and helped the Wildcats gain the mindset they can competitively go from the WAC to the Pac-10, was quoted as saying in an Associated Press article of the victory over ASU: “It is the best win since I came to Arizona.”

It was his lone victory against ASU and Kush. It occurred a year after the Sun Devils routed Arizona 55-19 in Tempe.

“Last year we didn’t hit before we played ASU,” Young said after the 10-0 win in 1974. “We knew ASU would be a hard-hitting team. From now on, the ASU-UA series is going to be hard hitting.”

After Kush’s 13-1 run against Arizona, the Sun Devils have gone 15-19-1 against the Wildcats. It took ASU 32 years and six coaches after Kush to equal his 13-victory mark against the Wildcats from 1965-78.

Arizona started to turn the corner and become more competitive against ASU in the 1970s under Jim Young (YouTube video capture)

Arizona started to turn the corner and become more competitive against ASU in the 1970s under Jim Young (YouTube video capture)

The Wildcats finished 6-1 in the WAC in 1974, one-half game behind BYU, which beat the Wildcats 37-13 earlier that season in Tucson. ASU finished 6-5 and 4-3.

“Our offense was disappointing but credit a lot of that to a good U of A defense,” Kush said in the AP article.

Freshman place-kicker Lee Pistor made a 36-yard field goal with 5:51 remaining in the fourth quarter and running back Willie Hamilton scored a touchdown on a 4-yard run with 32 seconds left for the Wildcats.

Arizona’s Mitch Hoopes, a Bisbee native who later played for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl X, punted 11 times for an average of 45 yards per kick. ASU punted 10 times in the defensive struggle.

With less than two minutes remaining, Kush was forced to go for a first down on a fourth-and-3 situation at the ASU 36. The Wildcat defense stuffed the attempt. Arizona quarterback Bruce Hill led the Wildcats from there for the UA’s lone touchdown. The drive was aided by a personal-foul penalty on the Sun Devils.

The Wildcats defense included All-WAC selections Mike Dawson at tackle, Mark Jacobs at linebacker and Dennis Anderson at safety. Obra Erby, an All-WAC pick the following year, was a junior linebacker in 1974. An interception by Jacobs off a Dennis Sproul pass at the ASU 35, set up Pistor’s go-ahead field goal.

No. 3

SCORE: Arizona Wildcats 22, ASU Sun Devils 13

DATE: Nov. 25, 1961

SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, 40,164 in attendance

Arizona's Eddie Wilson (12), Bobby Thompson (24) and Bobby Garis (50) hold the game ball after the 22-13 win over ASU in 1961 (Tucson Daily Citizen photo)

Arizona’s Eddie Wilson (12), Bobby Thompson (24) and Bobby Garis (50) hold the game ball after the 22-13 win over ASU in 1961 (Tucson Daily Citizen photo)

The Wildcats overcame a 13-3 deficit in Tempe amid a strong wind and rain storm to triumph 22-13, capping one of the best seasons in Arizona history at 8-1-1. Legendary quarterback Eddie Wilson threw a 31-yard touchdown pass late in the third quarter and scored on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter to put Arizona ahead 16-13.

Halfback Bobby Thompson later zig-zagged his way to a 67-yard touchdown run. Arizona overpowered a tiring ASU defense as the game went on with its use of its trio of fullbacks, sophomores Ted Christy and Walter Knott and junior John Carney, opening up big plays by Wilson and Thompson.

The three-headed fullback monster gained 80 yards on 20 carries in the second half against ASU beleaguered defensive front.

“We knew with their depth they could stay fresh throughout the game,” ASU coach Frank Kush told the Tucson Daily Citizen. “It showed up mostly in the second half from the way we were beat down.

“We were fortunate they didn’t score more.”

Former Tucson Citizen sports editor Carl Porter wrote it this way: “After nearly three quarters of soaking up punishing blows from Arizona State’s bruising Wing-T attack, the Wildcats suddenly straightened toe-to-toe and began throwing handfuls of straight-forward fullback smashes of their own. In a matter of minutes, the Sun Devils’ eyes were glassy and their knees wobbly.”

The Wildcats gained 249 yards on the ground, highlighted by Thompson’s 67-yard scoring run that put the Sun Devils away with 5:46 left in the game. He spun away from several tacklers at the line of scrimmage before sprinting to the end zone.

“It was a counter play and Howie (guard Howard Breinig, the former legendary Sahuaro High School coach) had a good block but two guys were shooting the gap,” Thompson told the Citizen. “I just put my shoulder down and hit one of them and spun off — and that’s the last thing I can remember until I was clear.”

Arizona’s only loss that season was an upset to West Texas State 27-23 at Canyon, Texas. Its tie was a 14-14 struggle at Nebraska.

No. 2

SCORE: ASU Sun Devils 30, Arizona Wildcats 7

DATE: Nov. 30, 1968

SITE: Arizona Stadium, 41,350 in attendance

The “Ultimatum Bowl” as it became known is the game that ignited the idea of the Fiesta Bowl and, as a result, produced future national championship football games in Phoenix. ASU (7-2) and Arizona (8-1) were about to meet in the Territorial Cup game. The Wildcats were coming off a significant 14-7 victory over No. 20 Wyoming the week before.

Officials of the Sun Bowl intended to invite the winner of the ASU-UA game to the El Paso bowl game. Instead, Arizona coach Darrell Mudra issued his infamous ultimatum: Take us now or don’t take us at all. The Sun Bowl officials buckled to his demand and offered Arizona its 1968 invitation before the motivated Sun Devils routed the Wildcats 30-7 in Tucson.

Former Arizona coach Darrell Mudra's ultimatum to Sun Bowl officials before the 1968 game against ASU helped lead to his dismissal

Former Arizona coach Darrell Mudra’s ultimatum to Sun Bowl officials before the 1968 game against ASU helped lead to his dismissal

The Ultimatum Bowl led to the successful Fiesta Bowl because Phoenix officials wanted to create their own bowl game to avoid what happened to the Sun Devils in 1968. The Fiesta Bowl began in 1971. ASU played in four of the first five games (winning all of them). By then, the Fiesta Bowl had been established nationally and financially. Arizona played Auburn in the 1968 Sun Bowl and lost 34-10.

Mudra, who later coached unsuccessfully at Florida State in 1974-1975, resigned for personal reasons after the 1968 season although it was reported that he and Arizona officials agreed it was in the best interest for him to leave. He wanted more than a one-year contract (which was regulated then by the Board of Regents) and Arizona president Richard Harvill was reportedly angered by Mudra’s ultimatum to the Sun Bowl. Bob Weber was hired as Mudra’s replacement.

ASU, which had the No. 1 rushing defense in the country, did not allow the Wildcats a yard on the ground. Arizona, tops in the nation in scoring defense, allowed 30 points to ASU largely because of the rushing of fullback Art Malone. He rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns in the first seven minutes of the game. All of Malone’s five runs in this stretch were up the middle.

Former ASU center Thomas Delnoce recalled in 2009 with the Tucson Citizen the Sun Devils’ determination before the game because the Sun Bowl caved in to Mudra and offered the Wildcats a bid to the bowl.

“As a player, I remember vividly walking out into the stadium for pregame warm-ups. Next to me was defensive tackle Bobby Johnson (now deceased); we walked the entire length of the field taunting the fans who were already there and then registered our disgust by spitting in their end zone. Bad, I know, but we were a very angry team. Bowl games were hard to come by then, and we knew we were the better team. I suspect Mudra knew that as well, thus the ultimatum.

“The rest, as they say, is history. On our first possession, Kush – as was his custom – called a play named 44 trap. Everyone knew it was coming, including the Wildcats. Jimmy Kane (guard, and now president of Southwest Gas) pulled and opened a gaping hole for Art Malone. Art went in for the touchdown. Unfortunately, there was a penalty on the play, and it was called back. What did Frank do? Well, he called the same play again with same result – without the penalty. Art took it to the house for a second time, and the rout was on.”

No. 1

SCORE: No. 8 ASU Sun Devils 24, No. 12 Arizona Wildcats 21

DATE: Nov. 29, 1975

SITE: Sun Devil Stadium, 51,388 in attendance

If only they had instant replay back in the 1970s, then we would know for sure if “The Catch” is really “The Catch”. That’s what ASU fans call John Jefferson’s diving touchdown reception in the back of the end zone in the 1975 thriller, which had the most implications for both teams than any Arizona-ASU game to date.

Hard to believe: There was no live television (cable and satellite TV were not around back then) of this showdown in Tempe despite the fact that ASU was 10-0 and ranked No. 8 in the nation while Arizona was 9-1 and ranked No. 12. A trip to the Fiesta Bowl for the teams, as the WAC champion, was on the line. The Tucson Daily Citizen reported that 8,000 viewed a closed-circuit telecast of the game in Tempe and at McKale Center.

Most of what we have of “The Catch” are inconclusive grainy photos of Jefferson outstretched with the ball in his hands before he hits the ground. Did he trap it? Does he cradle the ball in his hands, preventing it from grazing the ground?

Did John Jefferson haul this pass in without the ball touching the ground first? (ASU photo)

Did John Jefferson haul this pass in without the ball touching the ground first? (ASU photo)

With the Wildcats leading 14-3 in the first half, the Sun Devils drove to the Arizona eight-yard line. ASU quarterback Dennis Sproul dropped back, found Jefferson running a slant to the right. His pass sailed long in the end zone but Jefferson dived for the ball like a center fielder leaping Superman-style for a scorching fly ball. After some refs showed indecision, they ruled that Jefferson did not trap the ball and awarded the Sun Devils a touchdown.

ASU fans call Jefferson’s catch the greatest play in Sun Devil history. Arizona fans still want to believe they are in the middle of a nightmare and the replay official has yet to make a ruling.

The Sun Devils seized the momentum of the game with the touchdown reception, although they still trailed 14-10.

Sproul, a sophomore, engineered the scoring drive in quick fashion after Arizona senior quarterback Bruce Hill scrambled for a 10-yard touchdown run that put the UA ahead 14-3 with 2:08 left in the half. Sproul took the Sun Devils 74 yards in 1:38, culminating in Jefferson’s disputed catch.

The Citizen’s Steve Weston reported “The Catch” this way: “Jefferson dived for the ball in the end zone and lost it when he hit the ground. Field judge Doug Reeves ruled it a TD catch, though other officials at first spotted the ball back on the original line of scrimmage, UA’s eight-yard line.”

Young is quoted by Weston as saying he could not tell if Jefferson caught the ball.

“Scoring when they did like that right before the half took something out of us,” Young told Weston. “Was it a good catch? I had no view at all. I couldn’t tell. I assumed it was good.”

ASU coach Frank Kush told reporters that he also could not see the catch Jefferson made. He admitted that such a play can give a team “added incentive.”

Sports Illustrated in 1976 described “The Catch” this way: “The highlights film shows it twice — the sophomore flat-out in the air above the end zone, his body parallel to the ground, the ball miraculously stuck in his hands. All year, projectionists throughout cactus-and-coyote country — except perhaps in Tucson — have been stopping the film, reversing and going ahead again, as fans relive the moment.”

Arizona Daily Star sports columnist Greg Hansen wrote in 1992: “Although some of Larry Smith’s monumental victories over Arizona State soothed much of the pain of Arizona’s unforgettable 24-21 loss to the Sun Devils in 1975, that defeat remains as the one lingering disappointment of Jim Young’s head coaching duty at the UA from 1974-77.”

A Hill fumble during the UA’s first possession of the second half resulted in another Sproul-to-Jefferson touchdown connection, giving ASU a 17-14 lead. The Wildcats retook the lead, 21-17, after Hill hit junior Dave Randolph with a screen pass that covered 53 yards for a touchdown with 1:15 left in the third quarter.

Sproul defeated the UA defense once more, driving the Sun Devils 80 yards in 13 plays, diving over himself from the one with 3:57 left to play. Arizona amazingly had four more possessions — not downs … possessions — in the last four minutes but could not score. ASU survived and advanced to the Fiesta Bowl, in which it defeated Nebraska 17-14 to finish 12-0 overall and No. 2 in the rankings. Arizona stayed home despite its impressive 9-2 season.

“I think Arizona should go to a bowl game somewhere,” Kush is quoted as saying by Weston. “They’re the best team we’ve played all season. I know their kids are terribly disappointed, but they ought to be proud of the way they played.”

Overlooked, because of Jefferson’s controversial catch, was a 77-yard touchdown reception by Arizona receiver Scott Piper in the first quarter that was questionably called back by the refs. Piper was ruled to have lined up off sides.

Arizona posted a school-record plus-2.27 turnover margin a game in 1975. The Wildcats turned the ball over only nine times all season, compared to 34 by opponents. The UA had two of those turnovers against ASU, an interception and fumble by Hill that led to an ASU touchdown and prevented the Wildcats from driving late in the game.

“I’ll look back on this game, not on the others,” Hill was quoted as saying by the Citizen in a somber locker room, reflecting on Arizona’s 9-2 season. “This was the season. We shouldn’t have won the others if we weren’t going to win this one.”


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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.

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