Ex-Pac-12 ref: I was trying to 'lighten the mood'

Friday - 4/5/2013, 4:12pm EDT

In a photo, date not known, provided by the Pac-12 Conference, Ed Rush poses for a photo. Rush resigned as Pac-12 coordinator of officials Thursday, April 4, 2013, following comments during internal meetings before the league tournament that appeared to target Arizona men's basketball coach Sean Miller, including perceived accusations that he placed a bounty on the Wildcats coach. (AP Photo/Pac-12 Conference)

ANTONIO GONZALEZ
AP Sports Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- 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.