By Richard K. Rein
Updated March 08, 1976 12:00 PM

That beefy bully is obviously fouling the little lady, but who’s going to blow the whistle on Ed Rush? His wife, Cathy, may, at 28, be the leading coach in the increasingly hot sport of women’s basketball. Her Immaculata College of Pennsylvania has copped the national title three of the last four years. But husband Ed, 33, is one of the game’s most respected referees. In spite of being at antipathetic ends of their business, the Rushes’ marriage has survived eight seasons. Of course, as his colleague Jack Madden explains, “That’s only because Ed doesn’t ref any of Cathy’s games.” His league is the professional American Basketball Association.

When Ed attends Cathy’s games, he metamorphoses from a dispassionate official who says he could “care less who wins—even as a spectator at pro games I just study the techniques and artistic expression of the sport. But at Immaculata, I become Joe Fan. I cheer. I scream. I even yell at the refs and a lot of them are personal friends. I can’t help it. These kids are like part of our family. And it’s amazing how good their basketball is.”

Cathy’s squad plays a pressing full-court woman-to-woman defense and a run-and-gun offense. It takes advantage of modernized female rules which make for a faster-paced game than for male college teams. (The women employ a stall-proof, shoot-it-or-lose-it clock just like the pros.) As a result, Immaculata’s so-called Mighty Macs are carried on radio, and have had to switch home games from their own minuscule gym to the field house at Villanova, a neighboring Philadelphia Catholic school. And last year when they played Madison Square Garden, the Mighty Macs outdrew every other college team of either sex but the male Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.

Not that Immaculata is anyone’s basketball factory. Practices are still so informal that All-American Marianne Crawford-Stanley, a flashy Pete Maravich-type guard, breast-feeds her baby between scrimmages. Cathy regularly brings in her two sons, Eddie Jr., 3, and Michael, 18 months. When Michael toddles onto the floor, Ed Sr. jokes, “That’s the Immaculata fastbreak: good defense, rebound, outlet pass, and then dodge the kids on the way up the court.”

The Sisters of the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who once worried that Cathy (not a Catholic) could give the school a jock image, do not offer athletic scholarships or phys-ed majors. The team flew student standby to their first national tournament and sold beer mugs and raffled off a Cadillac to pay for other trips. Cathy’s own salary is only about $1,000, so she pays out of her own pocket for two coaching assistants and for her share of upkeep on the family homestead (on two acres in fox-hunt exurbia). Her funds come from the Rushes’ summer basketball camps in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, which Ed started five years ago for boys—only to discover that Cathy was attracting even more girls.

Now, three-quarters of the 1,500 kids who sign up are female—and can be recruited straight into Immaculata. An intangible, Cathy finds, is self-respect for taller women. Four of Immaculata’s roster of 15 are over six feet. “Maybe now in junior high,” says Rush, “a 5’10” girl can realize this game is something she can really be good at, instead of walking around hunched over. You’ll see girls on the floor after the game asking our players for autographs. We give people role models.”

For all their preeminence today, both Rushes were second-stringers as players. Ed grew up in Flourtown, Pa., where he was a three-sport athlete but, at only 6’1″, rode the bench in basketball. “I wasn’t a good player, and that led me to officiating,” he remembers. “You enjoy what you do well.” He started out working at Biddy League games and, after graduation from West Chester State College, began refereeing for high schools and colleges. Within a year, Rush advanced to a tough minor league circuit where, he recalls, “They were ready to eat me alive. I had only one way to survive: call lots of technicals and ejections.”

By the time he was 24, Ed was good enough to become the youngest official in the National Basketball Association and eventually gave up his regular job teaching driver training and phys-ed in high school. Then, in 1973, he jumped to the ABA on a five-year deal, that earns him more than $30,000 per—tops for a ref, if not enough to furnish a star player’s bedroom.

Cathy Cowan was an outstanding 5’6″ forward at her Atlantic City, N.J. high school, only to be disenfranchised when the school dropped basketball. She also went to West Chester State but never started for the varsity. She was introduced to old alum Rush and their first date was—where else?—at a basketball game in Philadelphia’s Palestra. After they married, she fell into coaching “because I was looking for something to keep me busy while he was on the road.”

Though the Mighty Macs last week ended the 51-game win streak of their archrivals and the defending national champs, Mississippi’s Delta State, Cathy and Ed are in no danger of dribbling away their priorities. Cathy coached the U.S. women’s team to a gold medal in the 1975 Pan-American Games, but has bowed out of consideration for the 1976 Olympics job because she fears it will take too much time away from her children. Ed is cool about the queasy future of the ABA because he feels “I can always go back to the NBA. But I won’t if the terms aren’t right—if there is too much travel for example.” (Right now, he is on the road for nearly 100 games a year which leaves him with chronic jet lag.) That means the Rushes may someday decide to live on their income from the camp and the Kodak coaches clinics they’re running. “He’s not really a good cook at all, but he’s great with the kids,” observes Cathy. So it would be no sweat if Ed eventually wound up a househusband. One lesson Cathy’s learned from basketball—and life—is that “there’s no sense in arguing with the referees.”