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?”