Ed Rush insists it was all a joke. The supervisor of Pac 12 officials swears he never meant to be taken seriously when he reportedly told a room full of referees prior to the quarterfinal round of the Pac 12 tourney that he would give them either $5,000 or a trip to Cancun if they stuck Arizona coach Sean Miller with either a technical foul or tossed him from a game.
And maybe it really was meant to be that innocent. Zebra humor. Nothing more, nothing less.
Or maybe it merely was -- as Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott has tried to explain -- Rush attempting to motivate his officials to more strongly enforce the rules already in the books, especially those regarding the coaching box.
No Bounty-gate, referee 2.0 version here. Fuhgetaboutit and move on.
But then came the Pac 12 semifinals, Arizona tied with UCLA with less than five minutes to play, a controversial double-dribble call against Wildcats point guard Mark Lyons about to change everything.
As if on cue, Miller argued vehemently that a UCLA player had touched the ball, which would have negated the double dribble. Alas, also as if on cue, Miller was hit with a technical foul by Michael Irving, who was supposedly in the room for Rush's little joke.
It was no joke for Miller's Wildcats a few minutes later. The technical shifting all momentum to the Bruins, Arizona eventually lost 66-64. Two days later they received a No. 6 seed in the West Regional, where they eventually fell in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State.
But what if Irving hadn't called that technical? And the Wildcats had beaten the Bruins, then topped Oregon in the Pac 12 title game? What if they'd gotten a No. 4 seed instead of a No. 6 in the West due to those wins, and then they'd beaten Wichita State in the Sweet 16? And because of that, the Cactus Cats were in the Final Four this week instead of the Shockers.
Fantasy, you say? Don't try selling that to a 'Zona zealot, who has more than a little reason to see conspiracy and feel paranoia this week in the wake of CBSSports.com breaking this story on Monday.
Yes, Monday. Also known as April Fool's Day. And a fool is what Pac 12 commish Scott is if he doesn't part company with Rush before the weekend.
Because here's what happens if Scott doesn't fire Rush: Every future technical foul in the Pac 12 for the foreseeable future will be justifiably met with, "How much money is Rush paying you for that call?," or, "Boy, Cancun must really be nice this time of year!"
Headlines will scream "Bum-Rushed" and "Rush to Judgement" each time an official's whistle is deemed to have decided a game.
Beyond that, is it that hard to imagine any technical called in the Final Four being met with raised eyebrows by both fans and media, Rush-gate instantly on the lips of everyone with a pair of eyes?
Let's also go the opposite direction. A year from now, what Pac 12 referee would dare T-up Miller, or make a controversial call against Arizona if Rush is still in charge of officiating? Who would want that degree of scrutiny? And how fair would that be to the rest of the conference?
This isn't to say that Rush was being untruthful when he says it was meant as a joke. This is also not to say that Miller didn't deserve the technical, though it was the first he'd ever received in the Pac 12 in his fourth year at the school.
But this also can't be ignored: At least one of the referees in the room that day with Rush was disturbed enough to leak his words to the media.
And once magnified by the media, perception becomes reality, however unfair for Rush or Scott or a referee who may have done nothing wrong.
More than any other aspect of sports, officiating must be seen as fair and impartial. Right or wrong, as long as Rush remains in charge of Pac 12 officials, that perception will now be impossible to attain.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.