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Archive for Monday, August 11, 2003

Bliss never lived up to reputation

August 11, 2003

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Having Dave Bliss as your coach appeared to be such, well, bliss.

Church-going family man. Clean-cut community pillar. Former All-Ivy League guard at Cornell. Bob Knight disciple. Two-time Big Eight Conference coach of the year at Oklahoma. Dedicated teacher, who could be so warm and witty with school officials and players' parents.

That's why so many who knew -- or thought they knew -- Bliss are so incredulous.

His Baylor program has gone up in gun smoke? Many players were smoking marijuana and being allowed by the coaching staff to beat drug tests? Bliss sanctioned illegal inducements and improper financial aid to Patrick Dennehy? Another Baylor player, Carlton Dotson, stands accused of shooting and killing Dennehy?

This was Baptist bastion Baylor, not UNLV. This was Dave Bliss, not Jerry Tarkanian.

I spent many hours around Bliss when he coached at Southern Methodist in 1980-1988. He's a generally good guy and coach. But what happened at Baylor did not shock me.

Bliss has integrity in many areas. But like many community pillars, he has long compromised his ethics in his highly competitive profession. He wanted so badly to reach a Final Four, to live up to early billing as The Next Great Coach, that he began bending and breaking NCAA rules.

Or at least encouraging assistants to do what had to be done. See-no-evil Bliss often didn't want to know. He began to operate with Nixonian deniability. He deluded himself into believing he was as clean as he appeared to be. His rationale: everybody cheats.

Bliss stayed one step ahead of the NCAA law in Dallas and in Albuquerque before winding up as a "perfect fit" for conservative, sports-starved Baylor.

Baylor doesn't belong in the Big 12 Conference, where it's the lone private school. Baylor can't compete for top recruits with Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas -- not legally. That's a big reason Baylor basketball is now on probation for the third time since 1986.

The Baylor faithful will still pay for bragging rights; $30 million recently went toward upgrading athletic facilities. So Bliss had funds (or slush funds) at his disposal.

For all its March Madness appeal, college basketball is a sleazy business. Brian O'Neill, a Bliss assistant since 1998, said most programs couldn't stand much scrutiny because "a lot operate in the gray area."

Too true. It took a deadly shooting to expose Bliss.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last week that the NCAA had the goods on Bliss at SMU but let it go because the football program already had received the so-called "death penalty" for paying players. To pay basketball players, Bliss had used some of the nine alums who eventually were banned from associating with the football program. One of those boosters has been playing host to Baylor basketball's annual postseason awards dinner at his ranch.

New Mexico officials now acknowledge that Bliss was guilty of minor violations during his 11 seasons in Albuquerque.

And, increasingly desperate at Baylor, Bliss recruited players who possessed marginal grades or questionable character. Dotson didn't have the high school grades to get into the University of Buffalo. Dennehy left New Mexico in part because he had clashed with teammates.

Bliss offered him a scholarship though Baylor's allotment had been used. But Dennehy was promised his tuition, meals and living quarters would be taken care of. Several reports say the SUV he purchased in Waco was paid for in part by the basketball staff.

Dennehy soon developed a volatile relationship with Dotson -- best friends one moment, near blows the next. Dotson's estranged wife, Melissa Kethley, told the Morning News that players regularly smoked marijuana at Dotson's house, that Dotson had begun "hearing voices" and that he and Dennehy had purchased handguns.

This was the kind of "unacceptable" behavior Bliss didn't want to know about.

"If they'd gotten caught with the drugs and had to go to rehab or had some consequences, they wouldn't have been out there shooting guns," Kethley said. "If there were any threats, which I believe there were, it's because of the drugs. Even if the problems in the program are not the cause of Patrick's death, it's related."

But yes, in the end, a coach known for discipline and integrity in his personal life let his program sink to this. It could happen a lot of places.

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