TEMPE, Ariz. — Camp Tontozona’s charm is a myth perpetuated by two groups: those who have never stayed there and the Arizona State football coaches and players who survived it, and therefore want others to endure the same hardships.
“For me, it was my indoctrination to college football,” former ASU quarterback Jake Plummer said. “It culminated in a Rose Bowl (1997). It was Camp Tontozona that brought us together.”
That was the idea when former ASU coach Frank Kush started the tradition of training in the White Mountains back in 1960.
“You can accomplish so much more, both mentally and physically, than you can if you’re in a normal routine,” said Kush, who literally helped build Tontozona with his own hands more than five decades ago. “To me, the legend about this place is the association the players are going to have with each other. That develops the Sun Devil mentality and that, to me, is significant.”
It is also significant to mention, however, that Tontozona has portable toilets, aging cabins bereft of amenities, worn mattresses, no cell phone service and no internet service.
It also has bugs: lots of bugs.
“I woke up with some roaches and some bugs on my bed — it wasn’t pretty,” Sun Devils receiver D.J. Foster said of his first Camp T foray, four years ago. “I set up a barricade with pillows and I would spray everything. I was spraying everyone down before they walked in the room.”
Ah, the great outdoors.
ASU’s players and coaches boarded busses after Tuesday’s practice in Tempe and headed to Camp Tontozona’s cooler temperatures where they will train for three days. The annual tradition will wrap up on Saturday with a scrimmage attended by ASU faithful, who will line the famed bowl where air movement is a precious commodity.
In between, there will be bonding experiences, player evaluations, mandatory freshman songs and mild hazing that falls well short of past year’s, where Foster has heard the upper classmen used to “tape guys to poles and put honey on their nipples” for the bugs to find at night.
It’s fair to say that no subsequent coach has loved Tontozona as much as Kush, and it’s fair to say that Todd Graham’s most recent predecessors, Dirk Koetter and Dennis Erickson, both hated it. Erickson stopped the tradition for three seasons before Graham revived it in 2012 to reconnect with the fan base.
No matter how he truly feels about the place, no matter how often the afternoon mountain rains wash out his practices, and no matter how little sleep he gets on the sloping, lumpy mattresses shared by too many predecessors, Graham is putting a brave face on this week’s adventure.
“The whole deal about the first 15 days of camp is galvanizing your team,” he said. “Obviously, there are things we can do here with that, but Camp T is a great tradition.
“It’s even a better tradition in today’s modern world because there’s no TV, there’s no cell phones, no electronics, no iPads, no nothing.
“You sit around a campfire and get to know each other at night. It’s kind of like a rite of passage (hiking) up Mt. Kush and there’s nothing like the Saturday scrimmage. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people in there is just absolutely incredible. When you come out there, you know exactly what being a Sun Devil is about.”