1970s Sports


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Phoenix Suns basketball, Roadrunner's hockey, and a man named Frank Kush made the 1970s a very exciting time for Arizona sports fans. There were Bowl games, national championships, and one event in particular which drew crowds from around the state: the annual football game between ASU and U of A.


Narrator: Arizona in the 1970s was a less urban, less crowded place. There are more people in Maricopa County today than there were in the entire state in the '70s. There were only a handful of TV stations, country rock was brand-new, and Phoenix only had 32 miles of freeways. Although it was a smaller, quieter place, we Arizonans were already wild about our sports. Before the Diamondbacks, Arizonans rooted for the minor league Phoenix Giants, and major league spring training was already in full swing in the
Valley, Casa Grande, Tucson, and Yuma. Long before the Coyotes laced up their skates, the Phoenix Roadrunners were shooting and checking their way into Arizona hockey history, winning the Western Hockey League Championships in 1973 and '74.

Richard Sartor: The term "blood on the ice" meant something back then. I mean, you had fistfights, they were real fistfights, and you didn't have to worry about the guy spitting out his mouthpiece or having a helmet or a face guard or anything, because they didn't exist.

Narrator: The Phoenix Suns joined the NBA at the end of the '60s. They made NBA history in 1976.

Al McCoy: When the team surprised everybody and made its way to the NBA finals against the famed Boston Celtics.

Announcer: This has been one of the more incredible evenings in the history of championship play in the NBA.

Narrator: Game five is NBA legend. With one second left in double overtime and the Suns trailing by two, Gar Heard caught an inbound pass and fired a 20-foot arching jump shot, sending the game into triple overtime. Arizonans were glued to their televisions or radios.

Richard Sartor: I was in my patrol car, and between calls, I was cursing everybody calling, because every time I got out of the car, I just knew it was going to end, that I was going to miss the end of the game. And I'd come back and there's Al McCoy yelling and hollering and going hoarse about, "The Suns, the Cinderella team, oh, my God! Double overtime, triple overtime!" And I'm like, "Oh, God, and I'm missing it." I remember that pretty vividly.

Producer (off camera): Did you miss it?

Richard Sartor: Yes, got a call to a domestic and missed it.

Narrator: Unfortunately, Boston would go on to win the game and the finals. But the '76 Suns put Phoenix on the professional sports map.

Al McCoy: The first triple overtime game ever in the history of the NBA finals, and a game that still is called by fans as the greatest basketball game ever played.

Narrator: The nation started to take note of Arizona's college teams. Both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University were national champions in baseball, and Grand Canyon College won a national basketball championship twice during the decade. But by far, Arizona's most successful college sports program of the '70s was Sun Devil football under Coach Frank Kush.

Narrator: Between 1969 and 1977, ASU topped the Western Athletic Conference seven times. 129 players from Kush-coached teams made it to the pros. Unbeaten in 1970, ASU faced North Carolina in a wintry Peach Bowl, the Sun Devils' first post-season action since the 1950 Salad Bowl.

Frank Kush: We came out at halftime, we were losing. And I kind of got on them at halftime and everything else and we really start playing great defense, and Joe Spagnola throw to J.D. Hill, a couple times we score, and we beat them pretty handily. They did not score another touchdown. So we beat them something like 45-36.

Narrator: in 1971, ASU’s success, coupled with frustration over their being overlooked each bowl season, sparked local business leaders to create Arizona's own bowl game, the Fiesta Bowl. As conference champions, ASU played in five of the first seven Fiesta Bowls, winning all but one.

Frank Kush: The big one was 1975, the Nebraska game. Dennis Sproul, our quarterback,
got hurt. We sent Fred Mortensen in, and Fred did a commendable job. My son Dan kicked three field goals. He finally kicked the winning field goal, and that had to be one of the greatest football teams we've ever had.

Narrator: Although the Fiesta Bowl generated excitement and the Phoenix Suns statewide pride, for Arizonans in the '70s, there was still just one must-see sporting event.

Danny Spitler: That would be the ASU/U of A game.

Bob Boze Bell: U of A/ASU.

Al McCoy: ASU and U of A.

Joe Refnes, Jr.: ASU and U of A.

Christine Marin: That was the biggest game of the year.

Richard Sartor: That was the statewide rivalry. I mean, people that didn't even go to either one of those schools would choose sides.

Christine Marin: People traveled no matter the distance -- from Flagstaff, from the mining towns -- no matter where you were, you made that trip.

George Weisz: And it was packed, the stadiums were packed.

Kay Butler: The end zone was full of kids, no adults down there, kids running around like crazy, Occasionally finding their parents and asking for money.

Clark Rorbach: We used to go to the games and sit on the "A" mountain, and we could watch the game from up there, which was pretty crazy, because there were some pretty good parties going on up on that mountain. And one guy we looked at, we saw him one minute and then we didn't see him.

Joe Refnes, Jr.: Oh, yeah.

Clark Rorbach: We think he went over. There's always somebody falling off that mountain during the games in the '70s.

Joe Refnes, Jr.: Yeah.

Clark Rorbach: Luckily, it wasn't us.

Frank Kush: And the rivalry between the two institutions, it wasn't only athletically, it was academically, socially, and everything else.

Raul Castro: Oh, gosh, it was -- it was just a sin to even mention ASU.

Christine Marin: You wouldn't even dare talk about being from Tucson.

Bob Boze Bell: Frank Kush handed us our heads every Thanksgiving, and it became just a terrible, terrible thing. But we lived for that.

Frank Kush: I had our guys so fearful of me, they were scared of contending with me in contrast to playing the U of A and losing to them, because there's no doggone way that I thought we were going to lose to those rascals. But I enjoyed it because we were winning.
Now, if we'd been losing, it might have been a different story.

Narrator: The U of A/ASU rivalry, the Roadrunners, the Suns: sports in the '70s helped
define a growing state for locals and for the nation.