Bliss, Bears coach during scandal, talks about cheating, hurting others
Of the many ironies in a sordid story brimming with them, this might be the most stunning: Throughout his career, Dave Bliss envisioned coaching at a church-affiliated school as a final stop.
He got his wish.
But in their darkest, most fitful dreams, neither Bliss nor Baylor University, the world’s largest Baptist school, could have imagined what would make his stop in Waco, Texas, his last.
Five years after what might be foremost among college basketball’s most horrific scandals, Bliss is searching for restoration and reclamation, striving to stitch his life – his coaching career appears on permanent hold – back together.
As for the lives and the institution left in disarray during the last of his four seasons in Waco, Bliss said in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, “I messed up and I hurt a lot of people. I mean, I really messed up. . . .
“I cheated because I was weak. I’m not in denial; I cheated. I take responsibility and, unfortunately, the consequences have really been terrific. . . . If I take my situation and I cower, and I go off into the hills, which is what your instinct is to do, that’s not what I need to do.”
Bliss, 64, believes there is a need for communication with coaches and anyone else who will listen on two fronts: the spiritual and the ethical.
At the NCAA Final Four in San Antonio (April 4-8), he is scheduled to address coaches at an Athletes in Action function, speaking to the snares that unraveled his college career after previous stops at three other Division I schools (Oklahoma, Southern Methodist, New Mexico).
The program Bliss left in shambles appears well into a post-scandal revival. Baylor, which visits Colorado tonight, opened strong under fourth-year coach Scott Drew, climbed into the Top 25 and, depending on how it finishes, could be headed for the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, with the choice effectively made for him by the NCAA infractions committee, Bliss is trying to transition from hoops coach to hopes coach.
“I can encourage a lot of people who have messed up that God is faithful. Every day is a new day. . . . I didn’t find God; I knew God all the time. I just forgot Him,” said Bliss, now the president and co-founder of Interactive Occupational Training Inc., a 2-year-old Lakewood company that describes itself as an entrant in the “Web-based training industry.”
“I think we’re all on the road every day (to being better),” Bliss said. “I’ve been spanked; I can get better or bitter.”
Bliss’ world began to fragment with the murder of Baylor junior forward Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson in 2003. The investigation led to revelations that included Bliss trying to persuade assistant coaches and players to depict Dennehy as a drug dealer who used drug money to help pay his tuition.
No criminal charges were filed against Bliss, but in the wake of Dennehy’s death, Baylor’s internal investigation of the men’s basketball program uncovered major NCAA violations that included Bliss paying the tuition of two players (Dennehy was one), a drug-test coverup and assorted examples of players receiving “extra benefits” from Bliss and his staff. The school also was cited for “lack of institutional control.”
Bliss declined to talk on the record about Dennehy, Dotson or the drug test coverup cited in the school’s investigation.
Of paying the players’ tuition, Bliss said he believed he could “find them financial aid, have them get loans, money from their parents, something like that. But you can’t make that decision like that.
“You’ve got to do the groundwork, apply for loans. I didn’t pay for their scholarships until May because I was trying to find some way to write the thing off – to have it done legitimately. This is where I really sold myself a bill of goods . . .”
On a campus where walking the right path is considered paramount, Bliss, a lifelong Baptist, inexplicably wandered and took his program with him.
On Aug. 8, 2003, he resigned under pressure.
Athletic director Tom Stanton, whom Bliss said was a primary reason for coming to Baylor, also resigned the same day, believing he was accountable for the debacle in his department.
Until his final year at Baylor (2002-03), Bliss contended he had “done it right” – or stayed within NCAA rules – while heading the basketball programs at Oklahoma, SMU and New Mexico. But he noted of his nine years at SMU, “We went through a very tough time . . . because the boosters there were very proactive.”
Center Jon Koncak, Bliss’ best player at SMU and the fifth overall pick in the 1985 NBA draft, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram he received illegal payments from boosters while at the school.
Bliss’ response: “He’s said so many different things. . . . I know how he was recruited, and he never was recruited that way. What happened afterwards, I have no idea. We did try to do it right at every stop.”
Then came the last one.
Student of Knight
When Baylor called, offering a competitive upgrade in the Big 12 Conference and about $600,000 (nearly twice his New Mexico salary), Bliss listened hard and responded quickly.
Under former coach Harry Miller, the Bears had gone 56-87 in five seasons. Bliss had every right to believe he could do better.
Throughout his playing and coaching career, success was his sidekick.
Bliss, born in Binghamton, N.Y., was bright, athletically gifted and driven. He received an Ivy League education, earning undergraduate and MBA degrees from Cornell. He stood out in basketball (an all-league guard) and baseball (all-league, captain of the team), eventually entering Cornell’s athletic hall of fame.
He also gained membership in the prestigious Sphinx Head Society, which cites Cornell students for strength of character and dedication to leadership. And he began accumulating impeccable basketball credentials, breaking into coaching as an assistant under Bob Knight at Army (1967 to 1969), then joining Knight’s Indiana staff in 1971 for a five-year stint during which Bliss said he was worked “unmercifully.”
The hard labor left a permanent mark. Bliss named his first son, Robert, after his mentor, whom he called “the best there is.” And he never forgot Knight saying if a team played hard enough to win one game, it was up to the coach to ensure it would play that hard in every game.
But once in Waco, Bliss dismissed Knight’s all-important take on preserving the game’s integrity. Schooled long enough by Knight to have the same core feeling, Bliss admitted during his final season at Baylor, “I capitulated.”
Why? Cheating, Bliss said, is “a performance-enhancing drug. People don’t need to cheat; I didn’t need to cheat. Why do we do it? Our obsession to try and better our situations. . . .
“When you don’t coach at the great schools, you have to work harder and explore every opportunity to survive and improve. And a lot of that means (working in) gray areas, areas that aren’t illegal but haven’t been traversed very often.
“You try to create different advantages – not cheating, but pretty soon the gray area goes to the illegal area. And that’s what happened to me.”
Regrets hurting others
Though he concedes his recent past puts him in no position to be judgmental, Bliss believes the same “gray to illegal” swing is occurring more frequently at every level in sports.
Citing examples in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball and college athletics, he said a “crisis of integrity” is rampant, fueled by external pressures on coaches to succeed and internal pressures to gratify what he calls “the applause of man – trying to please people.
“Man knows right from wrong, I don’t care where he is in his faith. What happens is, the other issues play off that. But the basic issue of right and wrong does not depend on religion.
“I made just an absolutely careless decision. I understand why I did it. I feel badly that I did it because I hurt people that I’ll never know. My family (wife Claudia, sons Robert and Jeff, daughter Berkeley) has suffered in ways I’ll never know . . . that’s the ripple effect, and that’s why it was so selfish.
“But I also believe that God will take care of all of them.”
Widely portrayed after the Baylor scandal as representing all that is insidious in sports, Bliss said he “started to analyze how I had changed, how I had gotten ambitious, how prideful I was, how I felt entitled. . . .
“What has been interesting to me is that after a period of time and I had read all the bad things said about me, I didn’t agree with them. I was way worse than the face in that picture.”
Time for reflection
Since leaving Baylor, Bliss has held one coaching job, spending a season with the CBA’s Dakota Wizards before realizing “coaching was not where I needed to be. I needed to get my life in order . . . get a direction that was not about me.”
He takes exception to reports identifying him as a volunteer assistant at Green Mountain High School during his son Jeff’s senior season. Bliss said he “never scouted for them, never did anything” other than watch practice because his afternoons were free and former coach Bruce Dick was a close friend.
After settling in Lakewood, Bliss said he has kept a low-profile: “I go to work, come home, walk the dogs, go to church on Sunday . . . I take care of what’s important,” which includes occasionally accompanying Denver radio personality Irv Brown, a longtime friend, on visits to area correctional facilities to offer encouragement.
Bliss quotes the opening sentence of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, a best-seller in the Christian community: ” ‘It’s not about you.’ ” But in a time of reflection and introspection, it is a line he believes defines his final season at Baylor, when it was all about him.
“Coaches live for the applause,” Bliss said. “I say this coach did. And it wasn’t that I was a great coach. . . . Some people wouldn’t understand what I’ve been through. And I don’t say it wanting sympathy or anything else. It’s the last thing I think I deserve.
“I can’t even believe who I was for a period of time. But that doesn’t have to be the epitaph.”