Frank Kush, last Baltimore Colts coach, dies at 88, is remembered for his toughness

Frank Kush, the tough-minded coach who struggled to lead the last Colts teams in Baltimore to glory after a Hall of Fame career and controversial exit at Arizona State, died Thursday. He was 88.

The cause was complications from dementia, a son, Dan Kush, told the Arizona Republic.

Described in a 1982 Sun Magazine profile before his first season helming the Colts as a “a combination of [actor James] Cagney, Vince Lombardi and Darth Vader,” Kush found reversing the woebegone franchise’s fortunes as difficult as staying out of the headlines. The Colts went 7-17-1 over two years of upheaval in Baltimore, and he resigned near the end of the team’s first season in Indianapolis.

“I thought he was tough, but he was nowhere near what his image was like,” said Ernie Accorsi, whose tenure as Colts general manager, from 1982 to 1983, coincided with Kush’s two seasons in Baltimore. “He was a good straight shooter.”

After reportedly spurning coaching offers from numerous NFL teams over his two-plus decades at Arizona State, Kush agreed to a five-year deal with the Colts in December 1981, the seventh coach since Robert Irsay acquired the team in 1972.

In their first season under Kush, the Colts finished a strike-shortened year 0-8-1, the first team since the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers to go winless. His no-nonsense manner became apparent to team officials and players quickly.

Accorsi recalled that when the players’ strike began in 1982, Kush kept the assistant coaches busy around the team facility. Some were told to apply fresh coatings of paint. Others, such as defensive coordinator Bud Carson, were made to garden.

“He’s going around picking weeds out of the flowerbed,” Accorsi said.

Kush’s authoritative approach wasn’t for everyone. In June 1982, during his first training camp under the new coach, disgruntled wide receiver Roger Carr refused to participate in certain drills.

Wanting to be traded, he told The Evening Sun: “I’ve found Kush to be a phony. I can’t stand the guy. He’s lied to me twice already and now he’s taking to hanging up the phone on me. You know how he said he’d accommodate anyone who didn’t want to play for him and wanted to be traded? That’s a bunch of baloney.”

The next summer, Kush dismissed Holden Smith in the midst of a sprint drill, believing the wide receiver to be loafing. Smith said he was slowed by a hamstring injury he thought Kush knew about. When he confronted Kush in the team dining room, he dumped a container of root beer over his head.

“I don’t think he accepts all types of people and all types of personalities,” Smith told The New York Times.

By December 1983, only 12 players from the pre-Kush era remained on the Colts. But the team improved, finishing the season 7-9 after positioning itself at one point to make a run for the playoffs.

“It would’ve been a miracle,” Accorsi said. “No team in NFL history had ever gone from no wins to seven wins in one year. I thought he got them to play.”

Kush’s reputation preceded him in some cases. In the 1983 draft, the Colts selected quarterback John Elway with the No. 1 overall pick, but the future Hall of Fame selection refused to join Baltimore. His excuses ranged from a threat to play minor league baseball for the New York Yankees to demanding a trade to a West Coast team.

The Colts soon dealt him to the Denver Broncos for guard Chris Hinton, quarterback Mark Herrmann and a 1984 first-round pick, and Elway later said his distaste for the Colts stemmed from Kush and owner Robert Irsay.

Elway “didn’t want an association with either one of them,” after former Colts quarterback Bert Jones told Elway’s agent the “organization was like a circus” and he had heard from a friend that Kush was “like a slave master.”

Accorsi later hypothesized that Elway’s success could’ve altered the franchise’s course and kept the Colts in Baltimore.

Others under Kush’s leadership, however, commended his rigid personality.

In his Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech in 1993, Reggie Jackson highlighted Kush’s influence. The star outfielder played defensive back for Kush at Arizona State in 1965.

“He taught me toughness,” Jackson said, before comparing him to some of the harsh owners he'd played for in major league baseball. “You want to know how tough Frank Kush was? He was tougher than George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley rolled into one.”

Kush was also one of the few members of the Colts who went against Irsay’s instruction and visited linebacker Mike Woods in the hospital after a shooting left him paralyzed in 1982. Accorsi called Kush “just a good guy” who embodied the determination and toughness of his West Pennsylvania roots.

Born and raised during the Great Depression in Windber, Pa., Frank Joseph Kush became the breadwinner for his family of 15 at age 15 when his father, a miner, died from black lung disease.

“Frank was always an overachiever,” John Kawchak, his former coach at Windber High School, told Sun Magazine in 1982. “When he first came out for the team, he was so scrawny, we couldn’t find a small enough uniform to fit him. He didn’t weigh much more than 130 pounds, but he was my best defensive player.”

Kush went to Michigan State, playing guard from 1950 to 1952. In his final season, he earned All-America recognition as the Spartans won the national championship.

After a stint in the U.S. Army, he accepted a coaching position at Arizona State in 1955. He took charge of the team in 1958 and compiled a 176-54-1 record in 21 seasons with the Sun Devils, winning two Border Conference and seven Western Athletic Conference titles.

“Coach Kush built ASU into a national football power,” school president Michael M. Crow said in a statement.

But Kush’s intense style — he punished players in the preseason with laps up a steep hillock nearby known as Mount Kush — figured prominently in his firing. In October 1979, the university said he had interfered in an internal investigation of allegations by a former player of physical and mental harassment against the coach. Kush later was found to be not liable in the player's suit aginst the school.

After a year off and a stint with the Canadian Football League’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1981, Kush joined the Colts. His coaching career ended in 1985 with the Arizona Outlaws of the United States Football League. In 1995, Kush was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.

His wife, Frances, died at age 80 in 2010. They had three sons: Dan, David and Damian.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.