Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Ex-Baylor coach Bliss returns to Texas

In this Feb. 8, 2003, file photo, then-Baylor coach Dave Bliss watches as his Baylor team plays against Oklahoma during a game in Norman, Okla. After spending several years hiding from the disgrace of presiding over a program stained by a shocking murder and financial shenanigans, Bliss is living back in Texas.

In this Feb. 8, 2003, file photo, then-Baylor coach Dave Bliss watches as his Baylor team plays against Oklahoma during a game in Norman, Okla. After spending several years hiding from the disgrace of presiding over a program stained by a shocking murder and financial shenanigans, Bliss is living back in Texas.


Former basketball coach Dave Bliss is back in Texas after hiding from a scandal that started with a player’s killing and snared Bliss in a web of lies and financial shenanigans.

The one-time Baylor coach spent time in North Dakota and Colorado before returning to be near his first grandchild. Basketball seems to be far behind him, yet he is now candidly discussing what went wrong in Waco — and shouldering the blame.

On a Sunday in late spring, he brought his testimony to a suburban Dallas pulpit.

“I’ve heard all the things, sometimes secondhand, about how bad a person I am,” Bliss told the congregation at the First Baptist Church of Ovilla. “I heard about stuff on ESPN. But I did an autopsy on myself. They were wrong.

“I was worse than that.”

Wearing a dark sports coat and khaki slacks, the 65-year-old Bliss laid out his indiscretions and their repercussions. The sins of a biblical figure (King David), a disgraced sports star (Roger Clemens), a politician (Richard Nixon) and another Texas scandal (Enron) — all were cathartic analogies for Bliss.

“I allowed the competitive world of college athletics to compromise my beliefs,” Bliss said. “I shamed my family, I shamed my school, I shamed my profession and I blasphemed my faith.”

When he finished, the congregation gave Bliss a standing ovation.

“Some of them knew the story and some didn’t know who Dave Bliss was,” said Lynn Shortnacy, a longtime Southwest Conference basketball referee who helped set up his friend’s visit. “I was excited that people were excited. It wasn’t because of Dave, but because of his story.”

And it’s quite a story.

A former assistant to Bob Knight, Bliss won 526 games over 28 years at Oklahoma, SMU and New Mexico before taking over at Baylor in 1999. Four years later, player Patrick Dennehy went missing, then was discovered to have been murdered. A former teammate, Carlton Dotson, later pleaded guilty to killing Dennehy and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

While that was playing out, Baylor officials discovered that Bliss improperly paid up to $40,000 in tuition for Dennehy and another player, and that the coaching staff had not reported players’ failed drug tests. And, in an attempt to cover his own misdeeds, Bliss asked players and an assistant coach to lie to investigators by saying Dennehy paid his tuition by dealing drugs; the assistant coach taped that conversation and turned it over to authorities.

Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned in August 2003, two months after Dennehy’s slaying. No criminal charges were filed against Bliss, although the NCAA all but banned him from coaching big-time college basketball again.

Besides the shame the scandal brought to the world’s largest Baptist university, the NCAA left the program in tatters, too. Baylor was forced to play a reduced schedule in 2005-06 and is on probation until 2010.

“At Baylor, I didn’t have any external pressures,” Bliss said. “They took me because they were glad I wanted to coach there. So I can’t blame it on anyone else.”

After his resignation, Bliss realized that living in Waco or most anywhere in Texas was not an option. He and his wife, Claudia, moved to a suburb of Denver. He later dabbled in coaching, spending one season with the Dakota Wizards of the CBA and last summer going to China with a team from Athletes in Action, a ministry that uses sports as a platform.

Then, last September, Bliss’ daughter made him a grandfather. The arrival of granddaughter, Brynn, was enough to draw the couple back to Texas, to the town of Kyle, about 20 miles south of Austin and 120 miles from Waco.

“I think all grandparents love to be near their grandchild,” Bliss said. “We love Texas regardless. It seemed to be a perfect place to be.”

Bliss first got the idea about moving back during a trip to San Antonio for the 2008 Final Four, when he spoke at an Athletes in Action gathering to a large group of coaches. His topic: the pressures of college basketball.

“The guy is a dynamic speaker,” Shortnacy said. “When he walks up to the platform and starts talking, he captivates everyone’s attention.”

It’s why Shortnacy invited him to Ovilla.

In a gymnasium converted into a church, Bliss paced on a long stage where the scorer’s table and the sideline benches might be. He held a Bible and recounted his role in the Baylor saga.

“The decision I made in the twinkling of an eye has had an effect not only on Dave Bliss, but on all the people and the school,” Bliss said. “The peripheral fallout has occurred and there have been tremendous consequences.”

There’s also been a tremendous turnaround in Baylor basketball.

Despite all the limitations, Bliss’ successor, Scott Drew, guided the Bears into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 20 years in 2008. This past season, they were briefly ranked in the Top 25 and wound up reaching the NIT title game.

That success, coupled with the six years that have passed since Dennehy’s death, have likely eased the anger many feel toward Bliss. Still, he realizes there are skeptics who wonder why he’s going around talking about those dark days.

“I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind,” Bliss said. “The second chance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trying to change people’s mind. The second chance is to do it the way God would have you do it.”

The group Bliss wants to counsel most is young coaches. He believes his experience can help them realize coaching is more than just winning or losing.

On Tuesday, Bliss was scheduled to speak at the Texas High School Coaches Association’s annual convention in Austin. His session was billed, “Coaching: A job or a profession?”


boomrsoonr26 10 years, 6 months ago

Wow! Thats all I can say. Is it socially acceptable to forgive this guy, I dont think so. Good reporting however, very captivating stuff.

mbaadte 10 years, 6 months ago

Great of my favorite non KU stories of the year. Glad to hear Bliss is doing something productive with his story in helping young coaches and not just going on some book tour for big profits

okjhok 10 years, 6 months ago

I believe in second chances, but if Bliss starts making serious money (I'm not sure he's not already) by talking to athletes about how he screwed up, I've got a problem with that. What this guy did at Baylor is almost inconceivable for someone in his position.

hawk316 10 years, 6 months ago

You have to be impressed with this man's courage and brutal honesty. Not a hint of self-justification. No whining. No blaming. No pathetic excuses. Just the cold, hard truth. He failed miserably. But as his Christian faith teaches, it's what we do with our failures that is important (and, of course, that's great news since we have ALL failed!). Not only did he honestly confess his wrongdoing, but he changed the direction of his life (that's called repentance). I love it that he's now taking what he's learned and using it to help others. Boomrsoonr26, it may not be "socially acceptable to forgive this guy," but it's certainly theologically correct. What a wonderful story.

yovoy 10 years, 6 months ago

asking others to lie about a murder victim is book-of-hoyle okay if you are a repentant christian:

"oops, i (REALLY) goofed-up and here's how and why. can we do another take?"

would it be okay to forgive him if he were something other than a "christian", and he still repented? would his deeds be viewed as any more or less "okay"? lots of other faiths have forgiveness and repentance as part of their teachings so i'm just curious.

b-sooner, do you want to forgive this guy? i'd argue that theologically, it's not up to any of us to forgive him. i'd say that socially/secularly, it's up to you.

i just don't understand how he didn't have any charges against him, or do any time. sure losing his job and reputation were "punishment", but most criminals lose those things AND face confinement. "some people" (like my cousin) go to rehab or church after criminal matters are discovered. "others" just go to jail. okjhok, he's not going to be poor, if that's what you're after. allowing this guy to just go into exile is really almost foreign. it's sort of an old world, or third world reaction. "okay, just go away." odd.

still one of the better stories i've seen on here.

hawk316 10 years, 6 months ago

yovoy, if you read carefully what has been posted, you'll notice that no one is saying that what Bliss did was ok. I specifically stated that "he failed miserably." Jhaux referred to his "massive mistakes" and how, due to his behavior. "lots of people suffered." No one is justifying his actions, least of all, Bliss himself. What he did was despicable. But this is more than a story of one man's terrible failures; it is also a story of redemption. The reason why so many of us respond so positively to such a story is that we, if totally honest, recognize our own failures and need for redemption. I know personally I have screwed up royally at times, and I am deeply grateful that God's love and forgiveness is big enough to redeem my worst mistakes. In the words of John Claypool, "God is the God of fertilizer. He can take dung and bring things of beauty out of it. It is incredible what he can still salvage out of what we do."

hawk316 10 years, 6 months ago

Yovoy, just a quick response to a couple other points (good questions, by the way!). Obviously, those who were directly impacted by what Bliss did have a greater opportunity to forgive than those of us who are mere "onlookers." Still, I believe it is important for each of us to have a spirit of generosity and forgiveness when considering the mistakes of others, even when we are not directly involved. Next time it may be you or me who need forgiveness! :-) What's the old saying? "To err is human, to forgive divine."

Our responsibility to forgive applies to everyone, Christian or not. Some time ago I read this amazing story about a woman who chose to forgive the man who killed her son. She actually went to visit him in prison and befriended him. The man in prison was not a Christian and certainly did not deserve such a show of incredible kindness, but the mother (a Christian, by the way) took very seriously the importance of offering true forgiveness. As someone once said, "we are most like beasts when we kill, We are most like men when we judge. We are most like God when we forgive."

HoustonJhawk 10 years, 6 months ago

I saw him speak on Tuesday in Austin and he was awesome. I was very skeptical when heard he was going to be speaking because of the scandal at Baylor but his speech was one of the most genuine and insightful speeches I have heard. Bliss appears to be truly broken and humbled by his actions at Baylor. He struck a nerve with the coaches in the room because of his accountability for the Baylor scandal and he recieved a louder and longer ovation than any other coach at the clinic including Mack Brown and Rick Barnes. I urge people to see him if they get the chance then make up their minds about him.

yovoy 10 years, 6 months ago

john, er, hawk316,

i get all that, and my heart is all warm and squishy like so much fresh-baked apple pie, but seriously though. thanks for being so candid in your beliefs (and using anecdotes to serve your standpoint) - as well as others on here. i'm just so shocked - still - that i really don't know what to think about the whole thing. i don't believe it's my business to forgive him, but i can't really form an opinion on what i THINK! it's makin' me crazy.

that said, i'd like to hear him speak, but i think i would leave early. not out of disrespect, not because i think it would be boring. 'merka looooooooves tales of redemption and resurrection (resurrection and redemption aren't always that different), and i'm not sure that this one is any more believable than the urban legends (ok, "white lies") that are propagated by reader's digest. i think if i stayed for the whole thing and actually saw all these people be bamboozled into cheering or forgiving this guy because "it feels like the right thing to do", i'd be less likely to believe him. weird, i know. i'm a skeptic. i really am an optimist, but i'm not sure this guy gets the benefit of the doubt w/ me, and a room full of cheering/sobbing christians/sporty-types would do anything to help me analyze the situation. that and public confession just seems so "messy" that i tend to think there are ulterior motives. the bigger the confession, the messier, and it's almost impossible to keep that kind of stuff off of you. i'm also incredulous that he was allowed to just slink away, and how he's being allowed to come back and "testify" (in the christian sense). was there any legal actiona against him at all. THAT's the judgement he should've faced. melvin watkins would have had to. i'm sure that'll make everyone that reads this happy, but i said it, and if you don't think so, you're wrong.

i was a big fan of this guy before any of this happened. before the league was co-opted by tex-ass, i used to go watch the open practices before the conference tourney, and the way he handled his players really made an impression on me. that's why the whole thing shocked me like it did, and that's why i'm so intrigued by this story.

i'm similar to okjhok: i also believe it would be "wrong" if he's profiting from this - unless his fees are going to the families of those involved, and even then i'm not sure it's okay after some of the things he's associated with having happened.

hawk316 10 years, 6 months ago

Yovoy, not sure you'll see this since the article has now been removed from the front pages, so to speak, but thought I'd give it a try anyway. I think possibly what you're sensing in this matter is the need for justice. Most of us have this innate understanding that wrongdoing deserves punishment. The more serious the crime, the greater we sense the need for justice. (By the way, this points to the fact that there are absolutes in the universe...that ultimately we are all accountable for our behavior and that there is a Righteous Judge who will pronounce final judgment in the end).

As you may know, that's the magnificent beauty of the Christian message. Although all of us are truly guilty, God, in his great mercy and love, placed all of our wrongdoing upon his own Son who took the punishment that each of us justly deserved. If we choose to place our faith in what Jesus did for us, we go free...completely forgiven. In this amazing act, God remains perfectly just (our sin was punished in the suffering and death of Jesus), yet loving and kind beyond words as he provides a "not guilty verdict" for anyone who chooses to accept it. That's why Bliss can know true redemption in spite of his terrible misdeeds.

Of course, there are also real consequences for our actions, and Bliss did not get off scot-free, by any means. Besides the public shame and humiliation he suffered, it sounds like he will no longer be allowed to pursue his chosen profession.

yovoy 10 years, 6 months ago

nice use of your board name as the built-in message, and i'm not knocking that.

i'm not simply searching for justice. i wonder how one of the most recognizable faces at the largest baptist college in the country, gets away with what he did. not searching for justice: i'm searching for 'one nation under GOD, indivisible, with liberty and JUSTICE FOR ALL'. god's interpreters of justice are crappy, and they make a mockery of Justice. 'justice for some' is more like it. sure, all repentant souls are worth saving, it's just that some are MORE worth locking up before saving them. i asked about melvin watkins in the same situation. i'll ask the same question using a different person: would nolan richardson have been as likely (in THIS country) to escape prosecution the way bliss did? if you say no, then i'd like to know why nolan richardson's liberty and soul mean less to god than dave bliss'. if you say yes, i'll say that you believe in god much more than the court system does. either way, 'and justice for all' means as little as it ever has. just words. biblical platitudes are wonderful, and if they give the multitudes meaning and more richness in their lives, then great, but when the rubber meets the road w/ the criminal-justice system they are just words without concrete deeds. fighting for justice for everyone is more christian (more human as well as divine) than dodging tough questions w/ a pat, chapter-and-verse, pre-packaged-for-easy-consumption answer. i am not saying this to knock your belief. i AM saying this because God is thrown all over and around and sprinkled into and onto all sorts of conversations without thought to what the word and His word really mean.

the more i think about this, and the more religious defense you bring to this guy's "misdeeds", the more ridiculous it seems that he didn't face the law. i don't want to hear that ol' chesnut about His "working in mysterious ways". we both know bliss' punishment did not rise to the level of his offense. not his crime, b/c as i understand he wasn't charged. if he was, please let me know that. forget "public shame and humiliation" and not being "allowed pursue his chosen profession"! people involved in covering murder plots up usually face those things - AFTER THEY ARE RELEASED FROM PRISON! he simply "dropped out" for awhile. i don't know if he's being compensated for speaking, but i'd guess he is, so as for a profession, i'd say he's doing better than he would've been had he been incarcerated, and the way "the flock" are raving about this guy, i'd say the shame and humiliation haven't been strong enough to keep him in exile, and that he feels good enough to travel around w/ his message of both. i'd guess he was driven out of hiding by a need for money. after all, i once heard that it's the "root of all evil".

btw - i get these because i like having another perspective (an optimistic one, yours), so i look for them when i get a chance. thanks.

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