Black Hat State

July 16, 2007

Any day now Barry Bonds will hit the 756th home run of his career to break Major League Baseball’s all-time record, one of the most hallowed records in all of sports.

And the nation will boo.

Why? No one wants to see holy marks eclipsed by the devil, and Bonds is the greatest Sun Devil of all time.

Sports teams often talk about needing an identity. The UA football program strayed from its identity of defensive toughness with the hiring of John Mackovic and it paid a heavy price. Our hoops team has lost its identity as an elite well-coached machine so we’ve paid a ton of money to bring in an old friend to help. The Wildcat softball team is identified as winning multiple national championships and looking (very) good doing it.

Arizona State has worked for decades to develop a universal athletic identity, and it starts with the school mascot. Do Owls get into trouble? Do Normals act…abnormal? The school in the Valley of the Sun needed a hellish nickname to clarify its image, so in the mid-‘40s a deal with the Sun Devil was struck, and ASU sports have been holding up their end of the bargain ever since.

Long before BALCO, “the clear,” and oversized hats, Barry Bonds was a polarizing member of the Arizona State baseball team – except everyone was living on the same pole. A 2006 book tells of every ASU player but two voting to kick Bonds off the team in 1984 despite his gaudy stats. Head coach Jim Brock chose talent over team unity, Bonds stayed, and an untouchable Devil was off and flying.

Has ASU tried to distance itself from Barry Bonds’ sullied reputation? Quite the opposite. His old jersey was hanging in the dugout during the Sun Devils’ recent trip to the College World Series. The team finished its season wearing throwback uniforms from the Bonds era. The metaphoric black hat in this instance was a flaming yellow cap, a defiant act in the face of Bonds-bashers (not to mention an obscene gesture to anyone with a fashion conscience).

That decision doesn’t come as a surprise when you consider the 1997 preview issue of Baseball America featured a story on ASU’s head baseball coach titled “Black Hat Pat” that labeled Murphy as “the most disliked man in college baseball.” In the years since, Pat Murphy has become a father and undergone counseling to manage his temper, but as recently as last year the Arizona Daily Star referred to him as “thoroughly unlikable.” So even if he’s no longer wearing the black hat, it’s at least charcoal gray.

The most famous basketball Devil of all time? That may seem like picking the prettiest garbage dump but I’ll give you a hint: He’s the only one with his own movie. Stevin “Hedake” Smith rocked the college sporting world when he was convicted of conspiring with gamblers to fix games during his senior season in 1994. That earned him a black and white suit for ten months, and a black hat for life.

But the biggest and blackest hat of all belongs to the man for whom the field at Sun Devil Stadium is named. Frank Kush was fired in 1979 during his 22nd year as ASU’s head football coach. The story passed on through the years is that Kush was canned for punching his punter during a game, but that was just the beginning of the tale. As Sun Devil booster Rick Lynch told The Arizona Republic on the day of Kush’s termination, “the Rutledge affair is the tip of the iceberg. I see Frank Kush as the captain of the Titanic.”

How would Lynch know? A couple weeks later he confessed to setting up a non-profit organization at Kush’s request to funnel money to ASU athletes. The name of the organization? The Fallen Angel Foundation.

In the October 16, 1979 issue of the Republic, Arizona State athletic director Fred Miller said, “I learned that Frank Kush was attempting to pressure players and coaches to go to the extent of lying if necessary.” A couple days later long-time ASU assistant coach Don Baker admitted that Kush told his staff, “Things are getting tough. We better close in the circle and we might have to lie, steal or cheat.” The Republic printed two full pages of sworn statements from players and coaches who witnessed the incident Kush was denying, as well as his attempted cover-up.

Things unraveled from there and on November 16 it was announced that eight players - including the infamous Arthur “Turtle” Lane - were ineligible due to receiving credit for a summer school class in Gardena, California that they never attended. “I didn’t go to class,” Lane told the Republic. “I didn’t know anything about it.” Lane’s signature was forged on the enrollment forms and his address was falsified to make him a California resident. In case ASU fans were still confused, Turtle added, “That’s against the law.”

The result was the Pac-10 stripping Arizona State of its three conference wins in just its second season since joining the league. The Devils forfeited a total of five wins and officially posted a 1-11 mark in 1979.

The following summer Kush granted an interview to The Arizona Republic in which he said:

“There was so much emphasis on winning that we forgot why the kids were there. I was as guilty as anyone else. So what you start doing is circumventing the rules. You’re not breaking them, but you’re in that gray area.”

And by “not breaking them” he meant “breaking them.” On December 31, 1980 the NCAA hit ASU football with a one-year bowl ban, a two-year TV ban, and two years of probation. The sanctions were the result of 18 violations from ‘75-‘79 including “extra benefits”, “improper recruiting inducement”, and the always fun “lack of institutional control.”

There was a beautifully corrupt symmetry to Kush’s ASU career: a major NCAA infraction stemming from violations in his first year as head coach in 1958, and a major NCAA infraction that contributed to his abrupt departure in 1979. So naturally ASU erected a bronze statue in his honor in 1997.

Frank Kush’s final tally looked like this: 9 conference championships = 25 NCAA violations + 5 forfeited games + 1 termination. That’s a winning formula according to Sun Devil Law, a big enough win that Kush has been back working for the ASU athletic department for the past seven years as a fund-raiser. No word on whether or not the Fallen Angel Foundation is involved.

Is it any surprise then that Arizona State just brought in Dennis Erickson, a football coach whose program at Miami toyed with earning the figurative death penalty while his players seemed capable of earning the literal death penalty? Is anyone shocked that they produced a TV commercial with Kush giving his approval of Erickson, all but passing a big black hat to the newest bad guy in town?

The Sun Devil made them do it.

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