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Forgotten football films beckon Frank Kush

November 29, 2007

ASU’s archivist, Rob Spindler, never knows what will drop into his lap next.

Spindler recently acquired seven canisters of film of ASU football games from the late 1950s – one of which remains a mystery.

Spindler received the 16 mm silent movies, which were taken by Joel Benedict, the founder of ASU’s audio-visual services, from Joe’s widow, Irene.

Some of the canisters were marked “1958,” but others weren’t labeled. One of the unmarked movies clearly was a scrimmage, while the other was a game – filmed half in color and half in black-and-white.

So what year was this “mystery game” played? And who was ASU’s opponent?

There’s only one person to turn to for this kind of sleuthing: former ASU football coach Frank Kush.

Spindler, who invited Kush for a private showing of the game footage, has transferred the films to DVDs, hoping the legendary coach could spot some identifying markers.

The first film, from 1958, Kush’s first year as head coach, hits the screen, and the dialogue begins.

Kush, leaning forward: “Is that Burton (Leon)? No, he only played offense. Number 17. That’s Hangartner (John, the quarterback).”

Kush continues watching the game he once coached.

Kush: “That wasn’t a very good kickoff. We didn’t follow through. I know that now. There’s an unbalanced drive to the right.”

Spindler: “Do you remember this game?” (It was ASU vs. Detroit College.)

Kush: “Oh, yes.”

Turns out Kush seems to remember virtually every player he coached, every game, every part of his years at ASU.

He regaled Spindler and the ASU Insight reporter and the photographer with his memories of ASU – and Arizona – in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fall 1958, the team moved into Sun Devil Stadium – but the players still had to dress for the games in Goodwin Stadium and take the bus to the their new digs.

At that time, Arizona State College was on a mission to change its name from ASC to ASU, and Kush joined the administrators who traveled around the state touting Prop. 200 – which would take the question to the voters.

Kush says the University of Arizona did not want ASC to change to ASU.

“We went all over the state, and right behind us was Dr. Harvill (Richard Harvill, then-president of the University of Arizona),” Kush says.

When Kush and the team entered Sun Devil Stadium for their first game ever in the new facility, they were stunned to see what obviously was a U of A fan’s handiwork.

“Someone had burned ‘NO 200’ in block letters into the turf,” Kush says.

Soon it was back to the “mystery game.” The only clue is the uniform colors, with ASU in dark jerseys and the other team in yellow-orange and white. There are no scoreboard shots or close-ups of the coaches.

Kush thought it might have been the ASU-Hardin-Simmons game, but further study will have to be done.

The movies were taken in the late 1950s by Joel Benedict, the founder of ASU’s audio-visual services. Benedict had developed a technique for the fast processing of film – which he put to good use on the football field, Spindler says.

“He would film the games, and with the fast processing, the ASU teams could see the first-quarter tapes at halftime,” he says. “We knew Joel had made these films, but no one could ever find the films.”

Irene Benedict invited Spindler to come and go through Joel’s darkroom, and there, Spindler found the film.

“Given that we already have ICA’s entire film and video collection (their earliest film was about 1969), we think these films are the earliest surviving motion picture films of ASU football,” Spindler says.

Spindler plans to show the films publicly for the first time at the pre-game reception for the UofA game Dec. 1.

He presented Kush with copies of each film, which Kush promised to share with the teams from 1957 and 1958. (Kush was an assistant coach in 1957).

So, the mystery remains. Who was that team in the light-colored jerseys, and what year was the game played?