NOTE: Here is a story posted Saturday night by USA Today, our Gannett partner, using a public records request for background on the officiating controversy at the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament in March. The University of Arizona has not responded to a records request from TucsonCitizen.com.
By George Schroeder
As the Pac-12 attempts to repair credibility in the wake of a controversy that cost the league’s coordinator of basketball officials his job, it might also need to repair its relationship with one of its highest-profile programs. Correspondence between Arizona and Pac-12 officials suggests relations already were strained before the Pac-12 Tournament, and that tensions might linger despite Ed Rush’s ouster.
Documents obtained by USA TODAY Sports from Arizona in response to a public records request show a flurry of communication and continuing disagreement over the circumstances surrounding the Wildcats’ two-point loss to UCLA in a tournament semifinal on March 15.
That was the game that led to a public reprimand and $25,000 fine for Arizona coach Sean Miller, both for his postgame confrontation with referee Michael Irving and for a subsequent outburst near a Pac-12 staff member minutes later. Two weeks later, CBSSports.com broke a story alleging that Rush, the league’s coordinator of officials, had promised cash and travel awards if officials called a technical foul on Miller or ejected him.
The documents show Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott had discussed the allegations against Rush much earlier. According to emails, the two men disagreed whether it and other factors should have been considered a mitigating circumstance in punishing Miller, who was incensed over a technical foul he was assessed by Irving with 4:37 left in the game against UCLA.
In an email March 17, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne asked Scott to consider a “condescending” email sent March 6 by Rush regarding Miller’s request for review of questionable calls in an earlier loss to UCLA. Days later, after learning of the allegations that Rush had offered $5,000 or a trip to Cancun to game officials to target Miller during the conference tournament, Byrne asked Scott to waive the $25,000 fine.
The commissioner declined. In a memorandum dated March 26, Scott wrote that more than a week since the public reprimand, he had “not seen any signs of contrition from Coach Miller” and had “not received any communication from him, nor have the official and staff member who were the targets of his profanity-laced outbursts.”
Scott added that an evaluation of the Wildcats’ semifinal loss to UCLA “reveals a normal number of missed calls” and enclosed Rush’s review of the officiating, which included the notation that the double-dribble call that led to Miller’s technical foul was “NOT correct.” Scott also wrote that he was “troubled by my impression that you condone Coach Miller’s behavior or, at the very least, fail to adequately appreciate its seriousness.”
Byrne forwarded Scott’s memorandum to Arizona president Ann Weaver Hart, who wrote back: “We need to let this go now. You did your best.”
Pac-12: Rush was joking
Six days later, allegations of Rush’s inducement to officials went public. Rush told ESPN his comments were made in jest. Scott said a review by the conference’s head of enforcement indicated the same, and that Rush was jokingly referring to all of the Pac-12 coaches, not just Miller. Still, Rush resigned April 4. Five days later, the Pac-12 announced it would commission an independent review.
Scott declined to comment to USA TODAY Sports pending the results of the review. Although he said the Pac-12′s executive committee has not yet hired an investigator, he said the report should be completed before the league’s scheduled board meeting in June.
Miller did not return an interview request made through a school spokesman.
Byrne also declined comment. But after Rush’s resignation, Byrne told the Arizona Daily Star, “there was a deep concern within our peer institutions as well” as Arizona. He also tweeted: “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.”
In a memorandum to Byrne dated March 22, Scott followed up on earlier discussions of the allegations against Rush. He wrote that Pac-12 director of enforcement Ron Barker had interviewed Rush and officials who had worked Arizona’s quarterfinal and semifinal games.
“We have concluded that Ed Rush did make reference to rewards like money and travel (different people remembered different phrases) for being stricter with Pac-12 coaches and making them remain in the coaching box,” Scott wrote. “However, based on the interviews, we have determined that these comments were made in jest and that the officials in the room recognized that they were not serious offers. … No official believed they would be awarded money or a trip if they actually disciplined a coach during the tournament.
“We also believe Ed Rush used inappropriate language and humor during these meetings. We have addressed this matter with him, and have initiated steps to ensure this does not happen again.”
On March 25, after the Wildcats had advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, Rush emailed a one-paragraph note to Miller: “Sean, Congratulations to you and your staff AND all the best in LA. I am optimistically looking forward to seeing you in Atlanta. Ed Rush.”
There is no indication Miller replied to the email, which he forwarded without comment to Byrne.
The documents show Arizona officials felt relations between Miller and Rush were strained before the conference tournament. Among the emails was Miller’s request, sent by Arizona’s director of basketball operations Ryan Reynolds, for Rush’s review of 21 sequences from Arizona’s loss March 2 at UCLA. Rush questioned the number of issues raised by Miller and wrote that only two were missed calls. He dismissed most of the others with brief notes, including: “???? Do not see YOUR point.”
“Ed’s tone was condescending and one could assume that he was bothered by the request,” Byrne wrote March 17, noting it was “only the second time that we had brought an officiating call issue to Ed … and isn’t it part of Ed’s job to be the middle man between the officials and our coaches/programs? If this is the response Sean/we get when we bring an issue forward to Ed it does not give us a lot of confidence that we will be constructively listened to in the future.”
In his reply, Scott wrote: “I do not believe Ed was trying to be condescending with Ryan, and I will address his style with him to work on improvement in this area. He tells me he reached out to Coach Miller personally via telephone after the referenced e-mail exchange, and did not get a return phone call.”
Miller’s previous reprimand
The documents include a previously issued private letter of reprimand to Miller dated Jan. 11, 2013, for a postgame incident after Arizona’s loss at Oregon the previous night. Scott wrote that Miller “confronted the game officials in the tunnel after the game,” complaining about a no-call on the final play, and that Miller’s actions “included pointing at the official and profanity.” The commissioner warned: “Please be aware that any further incidents … will result in enhanced penalties.”
Two months later, on March 17, before the public reprimand for Miller’s actions following the March 15 loss to UCLA, Scott wrote to Byrne with an offer to waive the $25,000 fine under the following conditions:
If Miller wrote a letter of apology to an unnamed Pac-12 staff member who was standing in the tunnel when the coach made what Scott described as a “profanity-laced verbal attack.”
If Miller agreed to meet with Rush and Scott by the end of April.
If the Arizona athletic department would “commit to developing a plan to work with Coach Miller on his conduct and reaction to situations like this, to ensure these incidents do not happen again.”
Miller declined to apologize and Scott handed down the fine.
On March 29, Miller wrote letters to Scott and to the unnamed Pac-12 staff member. He apologized to the Pac-12 staff member, saying his outburst was directed “toward a Pac-12 banner hanging in the tunnel area near our locker room.” Miller wrote that he didn’t notice the representative, but added: “I understand that you were shaken by this incident, for that that I am truly sorry. Please know that my actions were not directed towards you in any way.”
Miller’s letter to Scott, which accompanied a $25,000 check for payment of the fine, did not include an apology. Noting Scott’s earlier proposal to Byrne of a meeting between Scott, Rush and Miller, the coach closed his letter with:
“After learning more details from numerous sources about ‘The Meeting’ between Ed Rush and several Pac-12 officials in Las Vegas prior to our semi-final tournament game with UCLA, I do not believe this meeting is in my best interest moving forward.”