By ANTONIO GONZALEZ
SAN FRANCISCO — Former Pac-12 Conference coordinator of officials Ed Rush says he was just trying to “lighten the mood” in a tense locker room when he “jokingly” made offers of $5,000 or a trip to Mexico for any referee who disciplined Arizona coach Sean Miller during the league tournament.
In his first interview since reports surfaced of the incident that forced his resignation, Rush told The Associated Press on Thursday night that the comments were “absolutely, 100 percent said in jest.” He believes the remarks were leaked out by officials who were unhappy with his overall handling of the Pac-12 program and wanted to tarnish his reputation.
Rush said his remarks were part of an overall “point of emphasis” to crack down on coach misconduct on the sideline after Arizona’s 79-69 win over Colorado in the Pac-12 quarterfinal March 14. In the course of that meeting, Rush said he called out officials who worked the game — Michael Greenstein, Tony Padilla and Brett Nansel— for not disciplining either Miller or Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle for their behavior.
Officials who were working the California-Utah game next — Verne Harris, Deron White and Dave Hall — also were in the locker room getting ready.
“I said, ‘The game cried out for a bench warning. It would have been very simple to take care of that. It cried out for bench warnings,’” Rush said in a phone interview with the AP. “Another crew was waiting in there, getting ready for the next game. I would say there was a level of tension in the locker room, just because the disappointment that they worked this game, but they didn’t take care of something that was a point of emphasis.
“So in an effort just to lighten the mood, I said to them, ‘Hey, guys. What’s it going to take? Do you think we could give you a trip to Cancun or maybe $5,000? Or who wants what? And now they’re all laughing, which is basically what I wanted to do. So I said, ‘I know you guys, you probably want $5,000, you want the money, you won’t take the trip to Cancun. So I’m going around, ‘What would you take?’ At that point, I said, ‘By the way, you know my wife’s not going to go for this. I’m going to have to pull this off the table.’ They all laughed, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK, bud.’ That was it, and I walked out.”
An investigation done by the conference’s head of enforcement, Ron Barker, found that every official interviewed confirmed “nobody thought they were getting a reward,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. But Rush couldn’t survive the swarm of public criticism this week once the comments became public in a CBSSports.com report.
The 70-year-old Rush, a longtime NBA referee and the league’s former director of officiating, had been a consultant to the Pac-12 since 2007 before becoming conference coordinator of officials last May. He said he offered his resignation to Scott by phone Thursday afternoon once it became clear it was going to be “difficult to rebuild trust” of coaches, players and the public.
ESPN.com, citing anonymous sources, reported some officials did not believe Rush was joking in his locker room comments and accused him of being a bully. In response, Rush told the AP some officials were unhappy with his changes in the program, especially when he told veterans that assignments for the league tournament would be based on merit from throughout the season instead of seniority.
“That’s kind of interesting — anonymous. That’s weak,” Rush said. “If I’m sitting in that room, and my supervisor said that and I thought he was serious, I think I would face him man to man and ask him, ‘I need to talk to you. Did you really mean that?’
“If you think about the logic of how absurd that is, do you really think I would give somebody a trip to Cancun or $5,000? I don’t spend money that way,” Rush said. “There’s nobody who has more respect for the game than I do. If I offered $50, I should have been fired on the spot, if I was serious.”
What transpired in the Pac-12 semifinals, Rush said, added to the public perception of wrongdoing.
Officials whistled Miller for a technical foul during Arizona’s game against UCLA for arguing a late double-dribble call against Wildcats guard Mark Lyons. Arizona lost 66-64.
Miller went on a memorable postgame rant about the technical foul, waving his arms while repeating “he touched the ball” five times in a row. Miller was later hit with a $25,000 fine from the Pac-12 for what the conference said was confronting an official on the floor and acting inappropriately toward a staff member in the hallway.
Scott had said Arizona officials alerted him to Rush’s remarks the night of March 17, a day after the league tournament. He said he launched an investigation into the matter the next day, and he concluded that it was not a “fire-able offense,” just a bad joke that has stained the Pac-12’s official program.
“Although u never want someone to lose their job, this is a good step for the Pac-12 in restoring confidence in the bball officiating program,” Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne wrote on Twitter following Rush’s resignation.
Scott thanked Rush in a statement for his contributions to the Pac-12 program. In an interview with the AP on Wednesday, Scott defended Rush and noted he carried out many of the items the Pac-12 hired him to do: allow more physical play, put a heavier emphasis on training and accountability, and replace officials whose performance was deemed unsatisfactory.
Both Scott and Rush believe, at least in part, the procedures Rush put in place might have contributed to the leak. Even still, Rush regretted making the comments.
“That was wrong place, wrong time, wrong audience,” Rush said. “See, where I come from, in the NBA, there’s a code that you definitely follow. You never, ever take the conversations in that locker room outside. I learned that code in 1966. Mendy Rudolph taught me that. You talk to the NBA officials, they all follow the code.
“There’s a few guys (in the Pac-12) who didn’t follow that code. They missed that part, and that’s a shame. That’s a very important part of the bond and the profession. Shame on me for not knowing that, but I used poor judgment. So that’s my regret. Other than that, we got after it. We spent a lot of time. We definitely made some inroads in the right direction.”
The conference’s search for a new lead official will be part of its previously scheduled annual review at the end of the month in Phoenix. Rush said he plans to continue working in the NBA Development League in training officials.
“I’m not retiring,” Rush said. “You reach the point where you really want to feel like there’s significance to your work. It’s not the money or the position or the prestige. You have to get up in the morning and know that what you’re doing has meaning.”