The office is small and dark. The carpeting is thin, dirty and cheap. The walls are almost bare; not a picture is to be found. A conference table with a film projector on it dominates the dank room.

Nowhere is there evidence that the occupant has a past. Only a present, one filled with files, films and correspondence. No mememtos. Anywhere.

This is the office of Frank Kush, the head coach of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. This is his exile and his salvation. Day after day, Kush sits and tries not to think of the past, one that includes a record of 173-52-1 as a major college head coach; a program built to greatness; innumerable coaching awards, and a legacy of great players.

But all that is dimmed in his mind's eye. All Kush sees is that for which he will be most remembered: his firing as football coach at Arizona State. It came amidst allegations that he had hit a player on the sidelines during a game; amidst controversy over his coaching style, and accusations that he had lied and had ordered his assistant coaches to lie for him.

He was portrayed in court testimony as a violent man, one who mistreated his players in practice and paid his assistant coaches almost nothing while he grew rich. He was loyal, people said, only to Frank Kush.

Kush squints his eyes, as if in pain, when he discusses the past. In his first year in Hamilton, he has turned a mediocrity into a conference champion, clinching the Eastern Conference title of the Canadian Football League with four weeks left in the season.

Kush is not a big man, perhaps 5-foot-9, but his body is rock-solid, still in superb condition. His face has the rough-hewn lines of a working man, a miner, which he would have been if not for football. But what you notice most are the deep-set eyes. When Frank Kush talks about Arizona State they flash. His whole face seems to tighten around them. The lines appear deeper, the slack jaw tightens.

"I'm not bitter," he said, feet on the desk, a baseball cap tugged low on his head. "If you have feelings of bitterness, sorrow or anger, they're all in you and you're the one who suffers. What hurts is the lack of loyalty, the lack of trust. After 25 years they took me and threw me out like an old washrag. That hurts. I know I still have scars from it.

"I don't have any pictures of those years because right now I just couldn't look at them. Maybe when I'm old and decrepit I'll take them out and be able to look. All that is history, it's gone. I don't want to linger. I don't need that now."

He smiled thinly. "I feel like a guy who they've been bleeding for months. I got to the point where I just said, 'I don't give a damn.' It was the only way to keep my sanity."

But Kush did give a damn. He still does.

Some view Frank Kush as a martyr. Others see him as evil incarnate, a man who abused his athletes for years.

Either way there is no questioning his place in athletic history. Kush was accused of punching one of his players. Whether he did will always be disputed. But he was accused. A lawsuit was filed by the player, Kevin Rutledge, asking for $1.1 million. Kush was found not guilty. But the suit was filed. Kush was fired because his athletic director, Fred Miller, believed he lied. Kush says he told the truth. But the implication remains.

Many football coaches say Kush is a victim. They viewed his trial with trepidation, his ouster with disgust. When his friend's world began to crumble, Maryland Coach Jerry Claiborne called Kush.

"I told him if he needed anything -- help, support, a character reference, to call me," Claiborne said. "Frank Kush is a good man and a good coach. When kids went to play for him they knew what they were getting, they knew what kind of personality he had. He had coached that way for years."

"It wasn't like it was a Jekyll-and-Hyde thing," said USC Coach John Robinson. "That's always the way Frank has been. I think Frank was a victim of crossing generations. For a long time his methods were expected; most people used them. Times changed. Frank got caught in that change."

Most coaches will tell you that the Kush verdict was a relief. They feel if Kush had been convicted, their authority could have been greatly undermined. And authority is the cornerstone of almost every football coach's philosophy.

No coach relied more on his absolute power than Kush. His way has always been, as he puts it, "the old-school way." It meant running players up and down mountains; often brutal practices; rapping players on the helmet or jerking their headgear to get their attention.

He did it that way for 22 years. He won games and made money for the school. He earned the state great prestige. Until Kevin Rutledge, no one questioned his methods.

"I only know one way," Kush said. "I'm not saying there aren't other ways, but this has always been my way. It's the way I grew up. I've always had a high threshhold of pain and I've expected it of others. I have to be intense, I have to work them hard all the time."

He expected to coach at ASU until retirement.

But in September 1979, it began to fall apart. Rutledge the team's punter, went to the ASU board of regents and said that Kush had struck him after a poor punt during the 1978 Washington game.

The regents rejected Rutledge's allegation, but his family filed suit against Kush. It was the 13th lawsuit the Rutledge family had filed in 10 years and at first seemed like nothing more than a nuisance suit.

But then three players went to Miller and said they had seen Kush hit Rutledge. An assistant coach said that Kush had not been standing next to him at the other end of the field, as Kush had contended, at the moment Rutledge said he was hit.

On Oct. 13, 1979, before the school could announce his firing, Kush announced it, three hours before a game with Washington. Miller tried to keep him out of the stadium that night but failed, and Kush was given a tumultuous emotional farewell -- and a victory.

Miller and the assistant who replaced Kush, Bob Owens were hounded and threatened by angry fans and supporters. But Kush was out of a job. And facing a lawsuit.

"I must have pinched myself 50 times, expecting to wake up from a bad dream," he said. "The lies that were told, the horrendous charges, it was awful. Especially for my family, that was the worst of it.

"What shocked me the most, though, was the loss of security. All those years, and suddenly it was gone. I was honestly scared about facing punitive damages because the one thing I had vowed as a boy was that I would never be hungry again."

The jury's not-guilty verdict did not end the case. Gordon Rutledge, Kevin's father, says the family's attorney has asked for a new trial. If denied, the Rutledges will go to state appeals court.

"This isn't over by a long shot," Gordon Rutledge said. 'I think already what we've done has benefited football players around the country. No coach is going to hit a kid again after what happened.

"When Kush recruited Kevin, his reputation as a disciplinarian appealed to us. But there's a difference between discipline and brutality and animal-like behavior. Kush was all-powerful in Arizona. He had to be stopped."

Kush grew up in mining country, one of 15 children in a small house south of Johnstown, Pa. His father died when he was young and Kush worked on the railroad as a teenager. His life was never easy. Football was his escape from the mines that had killed his father at a young age.

In 1955, Kush became an assistant coach at Arizona State. Three years later Dan Devine resigned to become the coach at Missouri and Kush, then 29, became head coach.

By the early 1970s, he was an Arizona legend. He turned down a number of lucrative offers to leave; he was reportedly making close to $200,000 a year. In 1974, ASU went 12-0, finishing the season with a Fiesta Bowl upset of Nebraska that earned them the No. 2 ranking in the country. Kush was chosen coach of the year.

He looks back on that award now and laughs. "I thought then, I think now, how little that kind of thing means," he said. "I remember in 1956 I went to the coaches convention and there were all these coaches, some of them big names, looking for work.

"It was just pitiful. There's no loyalty among coaches; people who say there is are wrong or liars. They say it means something to be honored by your peers. Personally, I don't care what my peers think of me."

Kush insists that in his mind, what happened at Arizona State is over, but his voice cracks with emotion when he talks about ASU. He takes off his cap and puts it back on time and again.

But he does not duck the questions. "I feel sorry for the Rutledges," he says. "They have to live with what they've done.This didn't have to happen, but it did.

"I overestimated Fred Miller. I feel sorry for him, too. I thought he was a bright guy but his ability to anlayze and understand people wasn't what I thought it was. I could walk into a room today and look him in the eye; I can look anybody in the eye.But I could never shake his hand.

"I learned as a boy to fight adversity and to accept the pitfalls when they come.I've never been one who gets terribly high or terribly low and I think that got me through what happened. I've been down in the canyon, about as low as you can go. But I survived and I learned. We all learn things as we go through life. I'm smarter now than then. . .

"Football is a great name. There are a few turkeys in it, sure, but it doesn't change, the basics don't change. The pros are in this for the contract, the kids are in it for the game and the social factor, the recognition in college.

"Anyone who says different is a hypocrite. That's the problem with the college game today. It's so hypocritical. They try to say the kids are there for an education. It isn't true. Maybe later, when they mature a little they realize they should get the education, but most of them want to play the game, that's all.

"If the colleges are so interested in education, why don't they let the athletes stay on scholarship a sixth year if they need it? Why do they let kids into school who clearly have no place in college?

"If you're to be honest, there are three things which matter in college football: recruiting, revenue and recognition. The rest of it is crap. You can't have a program with scholarships in all the sports and a big-time football program. You have to have one or the other.

"But the system won't change and neither will the hypocrisy. I learned all that the hard way . . . the hardest way."

In a way, Kush has returned to his roots here. Hamilton is a steel town; 85 percent of the economy centers around the town's mills. It is a tough town of 300,000 people, most of them working-class; it is reminiscent of the mining country from which Kush came.

These are hard days in Hamilton; the mills have been shut down by a strike for almost six weeks. In the Tiger-Cats, many people find an escape.

"People here take their football very seriously," said Henry Waszczuk, the Tiger-Cat center the last seven years. "When the team doesn't do well, the fans can be very tough on you. They have been in the past. Frank Kush fits in here. He's a hard-nosed coach and this is a hard-nosed town."

There was exhaustion in his voice as Waszczuk spoke. With good reason. The day before, the Tiger-Cats had raised their record to 9-2-1 and clinched the Eastern Conference title with a victory at second-place Ottawa.

In a buoyant mood, the players had arrived at the stadium that morning, only to be greeted by a grim-faced Kush.

"The steps," he said quietly.

The players groaned. But as church bells rang in the distance, they ran up and down the bleachers of scenic Ivor Wynne Stadium, a 29,282-seat structure with mills near one end and the gorgeous steeples of the Ukranian Orthodox Church of St. Vladimir near the other.

"You can never read Frank," Waszczuk said. "I've been through six coaches in six years here before him and I could read everyone. But not Frank. You never know when he's going to jump you for something.

"Yesterday, when we won, we gave him the game ball. We also told him, 'Coach, you've made it awful tough on us.' We thought, maybe now we could relax a little. But no way."

Waszczuk's shirt summed up how the 34 Hamilton players feel about Kush. It read: "I survived Frank Kush's Camp."

Kush is here because of Ralph J. Sazio. One year ago, Sazio, general manager of the Tiger-Cats, found himself reading news accounts of Kush's troubles at Arizona State.

"Here was a competent guy put out of a job for an unfair reason, I thought," Sazio said. "I was thinking of making a change so I called him and asked if he would be interested in getting back into coaching."

Kush's answwer was definite: absolutely.

Sazio flew to Phoenix, where Kush was doing television work, and spent several hours with him. A tentative deal was worked out. In December, the contract was signed.

Hamilton's players were skeptical. Some veterans say they received calls from friends who had played for Kush, saying, "Watch out."

"I've never worked harder in my life," said Tom Clements, the quarterback who starred at Notre Dame. "But look at what he's accomplished. It speaks for itself."

Kush arrived at Hamilton and immediately had a weight room built underneath the stands in the stadium. He gave the players offseason conditioning programs. He worked them as hard, or harder, than he had ever worked his teams at Arizona State.

"The only change is that I don't slap the headgear or grab the face mask any more," Kush said. "I don't really need to, though, because the concentration level is better here. It's been very satisfying to find out that the basic formula still works.

"Yes, I feel vindicated. You bet I do."

Kush is also thankful. "Over and over he's said to me, 'Thanks for giving me another chance,'" Sazio said.

Kush is not a screamer, but he will ride his players. Most dread film sessions because they are apt to be called "bozos" or worse. Once, angry at Wazczuk for lacking aggressiveness, Kush started calling him "Henrietta."

But the team has won and no one is complaining. Kush says he is happy in Hamilton and refuses to speculate on whether he would return to the U.S. for a coaching job there.

"I needed this job because I needed to get away from Arizona," he said. "It's been good for me and it's been good for my family. I don't worry about what will happen in the future, I just try to enjoy the present. And right now, I am enjoying it. That's a very good feeling."

Frank Kush runs.

He always has, long before it was popular. "During the tough times," he said, "it was my salvation."

He still runs. Often. He feels vindicated, but he can't forget.

"I never thought I would leave ASU. I didn't want to and I certainly didn't want to leave the way I did. My greatest satisfaction now is trying to challenge these guys mentally, to play the chess game with them to try to make them motivate themselves. People are what intrigue me about coaching.

"I know I'm tough and I'm very demanding, but I tell my players I never do anything without a reason. I try to be understanding and fair with all of them. I treat them all the same. I get after all of them."

The question comes back at him one more time: did he hit Kevin Rutledge?

A deep sigh. The words are chosen carefully.

"I may have chewed him out, sure, but I didn't hit him, to the best of my knowledge; I didn't hit him. I'm not saying I couldn't possibly have hit him but I never hit a player on the field during a game, never." The answer, like the incident, is blurred. It always will be. It will always haunt Frank Kush. But, he says, it won't break him.

"I've been asked by people a lot of times, 'Is this the highlight of your career?' When we went to a bowl they asked; when we beat Nebraska they asked; when I was coach of the year, they asked.

"Every time I've given the same answer: 'Like hell it is.' Something else will always come up that's just just as enjoyable or better. When I left ASU, people said this was the end.

"I said the same thing. Like hell it is."