Former Baylor hoops coach Dave Bliss knows the pain of a Bears scandal
Baylor football coach Art Briles was fired Thursday amid allegations that the school mishandled a series of sexual assault accusations made against Bears players over the last several years.
It was a shocking end for a respected man who transformed a moribund program into a national power over the last eight seasons, but Briles is far from the first Baylor coach to come under fire for his actions — or in this case, reported inaction — in the face of a stunning program-wide scandal.
In the summer of 2003, Dave Bliss was the head basketball coach at Baylor when Patrick Dennehy, a junior forward, was shot to death by fellow Bears forward Carlton Dotson.
Several weeks after the murder shook the Waco, Texas, campus, Bliss found himself in the headlines after an assistant coach, Abar Rouse, secretly recorded the head coach instructing his players to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer. The scheme was an effort to cover up tuition payments Bliss had made for Dennehy and another Baylor player, Corey Herring.
The head coach had threatened to fire Rouse if he didn’t go along with the plan, but ultimately it was Bliss who resigned once the tapes leaked. (Rouse was later let go when Bliss’ replacement, Scott Drew, was hired, and has essentially been blackballed from coaching since, a result of his releasing the recordings.)
Nearly 13 years later, the disgraced Bliss says he’s learned from the mistakes that cost him his career.
“I heard that the investigative team and the police were searching for reasons why Patrick — you know, they were questioning whether or not he’d been involved in selling drugs, and all I did at that time was use their excuse,” Bliss told FOX Sports in a phone interview Friday. “But long story short, had I done the correct thing right then, I obviously would have made life a lot simpler.
“The tragedy, by itself, was terrible, but again, I look back at my poor decision right at the outset as the mistake that I made,” added Bliss, who said he originally made the tuition payments, totaling a reported $40,000, after two other players unexpectedly qualified academically, leaving his team with more athletes than scholarships. “Then, similar to most situations, any attempt to cover up is always worse. And mine obviously had tremendous consequences to it.”
The tragedy, by itself, was terrible, but again, I look back at my poor decision right at the outset as the mistake that I made.
After his departure from Baylor, Bliss — who also coached at Oklahoma, SMU and New Mexico during his 28-year career in Division I — served as a volunteer coach at a Denver high school, coached the Dakota Wizards of the Continental Basketball Association for a season and spent five years coaching high schoolers at Allen Academy, a prep school in Bryan, Texas.
Then in April of 2015, Bliss received a surprising opportunity back in the college ranks at Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Okla.
In his first season at the NAIA school, Bliss led the Eagles to a 19-15 record and a berth in the National Christian College Athletic Association championship game, but he’s still haunted by his unseemly exit from Baylor. And while Bliss declined to comment directly about the latest scandal to engulf the Bears athletic department, he expressed regret about the way his actions tarnished the program.
“The part that I feel badly about in my situation — and I would guess that the people involved now feel badly — was that I was a lifelong educator, and I had been a bad example, not only to my family, but also to my players,” Bliss said. “I lost a good job and I lost a lot of friends and a lot of things, but I felt worse about the fact that I had abused my position as an educator and a coach.
“I was very disappointed, to say the least, with myself, because that’s not why I had gotten into coaching,” Bliss added. “And I was very disappointed that I did that to all the people that I cared about and the university that I cared about.”
I feel badly for the people involved in bad decisions because I know, at the heart of the matter, sports was created to teach young people life skills.
However, when asked if he had any advice to offer Briles, Bliss said he did not.
“I just try to keep my house in order,” Bliss said. “I used to pass judgment on things and actions and things like that, but the sports world is different than it used to be, and there’s different decisions being made every day that surprise you and me.
“I feel badly for the people involved in bad decisions because I know, at the heart of the matter, sports was created to teach young people life skills,” he continued. “It wasn’t created to make money and teach all the poor things that seem to be evident nowadays. It’s a different world in many respects, in many different areas, on many levels.
“Sports in college, now, it’s going through a very tough period,” Bliss added, “and I hurt for the Baylor community because I care a great deal about them.”
Namely, Bliss said, the increased coverage of college athletics and the millions being poured into college sports are making it easier for both players and coaches to think selfishly. He also cited inflated coaches’ salaries, scheduling of games to conflict with studies and an overwhelming focus by both coaches and players on getting to the next level as influences that have had a “detrimental effect” on college athletics.
“We’re just in a tough situation with our college landscape in sports,” Bliss said. “I wish it wasn’t that way, but it’s harder and harder with all of the financial aspects involved. It’s harder and harder to get it back under control.
I feel badly for what’s going on because I think we’ve ruined a good thing. And I say that knowing that I was part of that.
“I feel badly for what’s going on because I think we’ve ruined a good thing,” he added. “And I say that knowing that I was part of that. The only thing thing I can do is get back to doing the right thing again and just try to help kids realize that there’s a lot of neat things that they can gain from athletics. There’s going to be a time when the ball gets put down, and I care about that part of their life even more.”
In the Dennehy case, Bliss said there was no indication that Dotson, a transfer from Paris Junior College in East Texas, was a troubled young man. Bliss described Dotson as “a great guy and a great teammate” up until the murder and said he always did what he could to properly vet potential players before allowing them to join the program.
In one particular case involving the current Baylor football scandal, defensive end Sam Ukwuachu joined the team as a transfer following his 2013 dismissal from Boise State. In August of last year, before he played a down for the Bears, Ukwuachu was convicted of a 2013 sexual assault on a Baylor women’s soccer player.
Ukwuachu had previously been accused of violence against his then-girlfriend in Boise, and following the 2015 conviction, former Boise State coach Chris Petersen indicated that he had “thoroughly apprised Coach Briles of the circumstances surrounding Sam’s disciplinary record and dismissal,” a claim Briles denied.
“I can’t speak to the Baylor situation, but I know in my coaching, I spent a lot of time on that,” Bliss said of assessing character when asked if he believes coaches put too much emphasis on talent. “The aberration that occurred 10, 12 years ago is terrible, but for the most part, I think all coaches try to do as much homework as they can, because obviously it’s an important part of the program.”
It’s unknown what will become of Briles’ career in the wake of his dismissal, but chances are the 60-year-old offensive innovator will have more luck getting back into coaching than Bliss did after his own humiliating fall from grace at Baylor. That’s in part because Baylor’s ongoing predicament appears to be as much of an institutional failure as it is a result of one person’s actions.
Bliss, meanwhile, is adamant that he was the “sole person responsible” for his controversy and that he “got caught up in making bad decisions.” For those reasons and others, it’s unlikely at this point that the 72-year-old Bliss will get another opportunity coaching at the D-I level, but that’s a fate he says he accepts.
“I obviously went through a very difficult situation and, as I’ve said, the worst I felt is that I abused my position as a coach,” Bliss said. “The opportunity to work with young people is one of the neatest opportunities that a person has, and it’s a different responsibility because of the obvious, in the case of sports.
“As we say, the landscape is different, and things are happening that you’d never guess would happen, but hopefully we experience and we learn and when we stumble, we pick ourselves up,” he added. “And I just pray that everything works out for the best for everybody.”
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.