On Tuesday afternoon, in the midst of his live interview with Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, Scott Van Pelt described himself as "not a 'fire the guy' kind of guy." I'm stealing that phrase: I am not a "fire the guy" kind of guy, either. Usually the "fire the guy" reaction is too extreme, and I've never been particularly comfortable arguing that someone should lose his job, especially when that person isn't an overpaid coach getting $3 million just to go away.
So with that said, let's just get right to it: The Pac-12 needs to fire Ed Rush.
This is not the same as thinking Rush actively targeted Arizona coach Sean Miller, or that Rush has specifically violated the principles of his position as coordinator of Pac-12 officiating. When I first read Jeff Goodman's excellent reporting on the Pac-12's investigation into Rush's comments -- when Rush reportedly "told a group of referees on the Thursday of the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas that he would give them $5,000 or a trip to Cancun if they either 'rang him up' or 'ran him,' meaning hit Miller with a technical or toss him out of the game" -- I actually felt like Larry Scott's explanation, both to Van Pelt and ESPN.com's Andy Katz, made the most possible sense: He was joking. Of course he was! No one is actually that dumb, right? What do I have to do to get you to enforce the rules makes about eight metric tons more sense than a power-mad officiating coordinator run amok.
Guess what? Exactly none of what I just wrote matters. Not a single word.
This isn't just about an unfortunate joke. It's about the coincidence-or-not of Miller's technical foul against UCLA later that weekend. It's about Arizona fans specifically, and Pac-12 fans more generally, being forced to contemplate the motive behind game- and season-changing calls. It's about any fan base -- many of which are already convinced the world is out to get them, and the media hates them, and that it's all just so unfair -- being able to put something legitimate under that tin foil hat.
It's about perception. You might not trust coaches, who could be cheating to get recruits. You might not trust players, who could be ingesting illicit substances. You might not trust any of the various stakeholders when a win equals more money and fame and NBA exposure, but there are always some folks trying to shortcut the system ahead. We'll deal with them later.
You do have to trust the officials. You can make fun of them, you can want them to make better calls, you can ask them to stop preening for the camera, but at least you know, for better or worse, that they're trying to officiate the game fairly.
That is why Rush needs to go -- not because I'm willing to believe the Pac-12's head of officials is dumb enough to openly discuss a bounty at a well-attended meeting in Las Vegas, or because the technical was just too suspect, or any of that. He needs to go because he hurts the Pac-12's ability to tell all of its fans that its referees care about one thing only -- the integrity of the game.
Forget the coach's box. Once you lose that, what else is there?