Frank Kush, the new coach of the Baltimore Colts, admits he's downright tired of people poking into the past. He is focusing on the future these days, trying to improve a team that he insists is not as horrendous as its 2-14 record indicates.

"The past is like an old, ruptured volcano," said Kush, the former Arizona State coach who was accused of punching one of his players. "Even Mount St. Helens is changing. It could turn into a ski resort."

Which is not to say Kush has changed from a drill-sergeant disciplinarian--some might even say tyrant--into a marshmallow. No chance. Kush's football teams are driven, to his limit and often beyond theirs, to win. Usually they do.

During Kush's 22 years at Arizona State, his teams were 176-54-1, making him second in the college ranks to Bear Bryant. The alleged hitting incident during the 1978 season led to his firing at Arizona State the following year, but last season Kush returned to football, coaching the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League to a division-winning 11-4-1 record.

He signed a five-year contract with the Colts last December after Mike McCormack was fired, and calls the job "my newest adventure."

"I enjoyed Canada, don't get me wrong," he said. "The nature of the game is so different there, you can't compare it with the NFL. But this will be another adventure."

Kush began his Baltimore adventure by studying films of last season's Colt games, and said, "This team is not as bad as its record indicates." Although he has not met with all his players yet, he said, "Just looking at films, you can see those who do not want to be part of it. It's a mental thing, and some people simply did not want to win."

Kush is counting heavily on offseason conditioning to thin the ranks of those who don't belong. His detailed diet-and-exercise program was mailed to each player, and he says he will see its results during a minicamp early next month.

"The physical and mental indoctrination come then, and by June, we should see a measurable attitude change. You can't leave these things to chance," he said. "This may sound a little too practical, but these players have the responsibility to put in a day's work, and I expect them to be in shape to do it. If not, changes will be made."

Dick Szymanski, the Colts general manager, said of Kush's approach, "Frank's record indicates that ballplayers better come in condition. The good athletes know they've got to be disciplined or they'll be gone."

Kush's longtime friend Gil Brandt of the Dallas Cowboys says, "Frank's bark has always been worse than his bite. On the field, he coaches tough. He's all business. Away from it, he's a compassionate man."

Brandt said understanding Kush's total absorption with football requires knowing his background.

"Football was Frank's way out of the ghetto, so to speak. Instead of Harlem or Watts, Frank grew up in a Pennsylvania mining town, and with that always in mind, he's tried to be a success. As a little bitty guard at Michigan State, as the youngest head coach at ASU, Frank has just determined to do well every place."

Kush's public persona belies the taskmaster reputation. He's too easygoing and soft-spoken.

Besides drawing up a season game plan at the Colts' training complex, Kush--who just moved into an apartment in suburban Baltimore--has been busy trying to choose carpeting and drapes his wife Fran would like. "But she'll probably change them," he said.

Kush's changes for the team began with his coaching staff. Because he insists upon "individualized attention" for players, he brought in only two assistants from the professional ranks and a slew of collegiate coaches.

"What Frank really wants are good teachers," said Szymanski, who played football against Kush in college. "Not that coaches in the pros wouldn't be, but Frank wanted people he felt would be the best teachers, and he felt they would come from the colleges."

With Bert Jones' demand for a trade today and his status with the Colts unresolved, Kush probably will have to go quarterback shopping.

"I have talked to Bert, and the impression I get, from him and the media, is that he would prefer to go to L.A.," said Kush, who is interested in Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter, among others. "But I don't know when it will be settled."

It also remains to be seen how settled the Colts' leadership will be. One memorable moment during the previous dismal season was owner Robert Irsay's sideline phone call to McCormack, asking him to switch quarterbacks. Will Kush have to deal with Irsay's coaching pointers?

"I think in the frustration of last season, that was magnified," said Kush. "Things had deteriorated to the point where everybody was looking for any kind of savior, or anyone to blame.

"Of course, I told him (Irsay), 'If you can make a change that scores in a minute and 32 seconds, I'll be calling you all the time,' " he joked. "Seriously, I had mentioned to him that if he wants to know anything, at any time, about our game plans, I would gladly fill him in."

Kush doesn't talk about "the incident" at Arizona State, as he calls it, when he allegedly punched Kevin Rutledge after a bad punt. But he says he has developed a serendipitous approach to life since then.

"I just do what I have to do and enjoy it. I don't have all the answers, but I think I know where I'm going. And I'll enjoy this because I'm going to make it enjoyable."