50 Years Ago, These Sun Devils Made History
(Note: Sun Devil Athletics and Sun Devil Club Letterwinners are looking forward to honoring the accomplishments of the 1971 Sun Devil Football team. Join us on Saturday, Oct. 9 for a brunch as we celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the epic 1971 season which ended with a thrilling victory over Florida State in the inaugural Fiesta Bowl. It will be held at the San Tan Ford Club located on the east side of Sun Devil Stadium. Parking encouraged on the north side of the stadium. The cost is $35 and members of the 1971 Fiesta Bowl team can register for two complimentary tickets. Click here to register!).
By Mackenzie Schweickart, Sun Devil PR Lab
2021 marks the 50-year anniversary of the Fiesta Bowl's inaugural game in 1971 between Arizona State University and Florida State University.
MAJOR EVENT ANNOUNCEMENT
Fans are welcomed to join us for a brunch on Saturday, October 9th to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the epic victory over Florida State in the inaugural Fiesta Bowl.
Tickets are only $35 per person!
— Sun Devil Club (@sundevilclub) September 21, 2021
The Fiesta Bowl was originally created for the overlooked Western Athletic Conference (WAC) champions who weren't selected for a bowl game in 1968 and 1969. The ASU Sun Devils secured the spot for the WAC in 1971 after going undefeated in 1970 but playing in the less recognized Peach Bowl.
The vibrant Arizona sun shined on Dec. 27, 1971, as 51,089 fans waited for the 1 p.m. kickoff at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, marking it as the highest attended inaugural bowl game in college football history at the time.
Arizona State University center Ron Lou was a junior when he played in the first Fiesta Bowl. Lou looked back on the "honor" he felt playing in that game. "It was very exciting because it was our opportunity to start something new and create the first Fiesta Bowl," said Lou.
The Sun Bowl is the second oldest bowl game in college football history, and the fans were already familiar and comfortable with it. Originally, the Fiesta Bowl wasn't promoted as well as the Sun Bowl, so it took some time to get the fans involved.
"Since it was all very new, it was a challenge to gather the whole community together for it," said Lou.
The Sun Devils and Seminoles fought an offensive, back and forth, battle with a final score of 45-38 for ASU.
"They [Florida State] were beating us in the first half," said Steve Matlock.
Sun Devil head coach Frank Kush wasn't going to give the team a "rah-rah" speech according to Matlock. Instead, Kush said they had a responsibility. "He said, 'You worked too hard to go out there and embarrass yourself, your family, and me to lose. Now go out there and win,'" Matlock said.
Sun Devil quarterback Danny White threw 15-of-30 for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Woody Green rushed for 101 yards and caught two passes for 46 yards, and defensive end Junior Ah You was named the Defensive Player of the Game.
The Sun Devils won the Fiesta Bowl three consecutive years in 1971, 1972, and 1973. ASU has a 5-1 record in the Fiesta Bowl, but the team hasn't appeared in it since a win against Oklahoma in 1983.
In an article for the PlayStation Fiesta Bowl, former ASU QB Danny White said, "I feel like the Fiesta Bowl opened everybody's eyes to ASU."
White, an Arizona State Football Hall of Famer, was heavily responsible for the early success the Sun Devils had in the Fiesta Bowl.
"Those three Fiesta Bowls kind of put us on the map. All of us who played in the first three have a sense of pride that might not be there if they had not done such a great job promoting the bowl," said White.
The '71 Sun Devil football team wasn't just a team. They became brothers who wrote history together, and their bond has withstood the test of time. Matlock was an offensive lineman for ASU in the early '70s.
Matlock still talks to many of the other guys who played on the 1970-72 teams. He gets a call or a text almost every day from someone on the team, and they still act like brothers even after 50 years. Many of the early '70s Sun Devils still meet up every year just to see each other.
The exact moment the final touchdown was called in the first Fiesta Bowl was Lou's favorite memory of the game. "The realization made it breathtaking," said Lou. "We had a new record. We only lost one game the whole season, which was amazing. I was so proud of my team."
Coach Kush's practices and speeches were another reason the Sun Devil team became so close. Matlock and Lou played for Frank Kush during his impressive era as head coach. As a way to stay humble and "practice in front of the local crowd," the Sun Devil team stayed at the Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg. Looking back, Matlock recounted the experience of facing coach Kush's temper.
"Two guys thought they would be the Robin Hood of the group, and they found the kitchen. Took a prime rib, sweet tea and a cake. You'd think the guys hadn't eaten in a month," said Matlock.
The 'Robin Hoods' were QB Danny White and RB Woody Green. When Kush found out the next morning, he was more than upset.
"Practice wouldn't end. He asked, 'Who wants to fess up about crawling into the kitchen.' No one gives in," said Matlock. "In the afternoon practice, it's the same deal. Ron Lou is the backup center, and hasn't had a break. He left and hitchhiked out of Wickenburg. Highway patrol picked him up on the side of the road."
During his time with Kush, Lou distinctly remembers the tough, must-win attitude of his coach. After a specific speech from Kush, Lou almost quit altogether, but the brotherhood on the team prevailed. "The love for the game and my team brought me back to continue on," said Lou.
White was coached by Kush and also Tom Landry when he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in 1974. In an Arizona Sports interview, White said, "If there were two men that had a dramatic influence on my life, not just my career, but my life—because really everything I have today, temporarily speaking, is the result of the game of football."
"So, it was Frank Kush that turned me from baseball to football, and it was Tom Landry who gave me a chance to make a living at it. Those two men had more of an influence on me, other than my father, than any other men in my life," White said.
Sun Devil Stadium was home to the Fiesta Bowl from 1971 to 2006. Now, sponsored by PlayStation, the Fiesta Bowl is played in Glendale, AZ at the home of the Arizona Cardinals—State Farm Stadium.
The Fiesta Bowl is one of the most recognized bowl games in college football today. It now holds a rotating spot in the six playoff and semi-final bowl games with the Sugar, Cotton, Orange, Rose, and Peach Bowls.
Sun Devil Stadium's field was named Frank Kush Field on Sept. 26, 1996. Kush had the most wins, 176, in school history and coached for 22 years. The 1975 National Coach of the Year was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995.
Under Kush's guidance, 128 Sun Devils reached the NFL including three inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Curley Culp, Mike Haynes, and Charley Taylor.
As the 2021-22 college football season progresses, ASU is currently ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press Top 25. There has been discussion to open the College Football Playoff up to six or 12 teams. No decision has been made yet, but the larger playoff builds hope for the Sun Devils to make it back to the Fiesta Bowl for the first time since 1983.
Fifty years have passed since the inaugural Fiesta Bowl game, but the memories from that game haven't faded away for the Sun Devils that played that historic game. "I can't believe it's been 50 years already, but I am happy to have created a legacy with my team," Lou said. "We had a brotherhood that bonded us together and I am forever grateful for these people."
Mackenzie Schweickart is an undergraduate student working for Sun Devil Athletics in the Public Relations Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Originally from Rock City, Illinois, Schweickart moved to attend ASU and will graduate in the Spring of 2023.