May 13, 2008

Bliss gets chance to return to coaching

Does everyone really deserve a second chance? Shouldn't it depend on what you did with your first one?

If so, this is the mother of all second chances: Dave Bliss will be coaching a team this summer for Athletes in Action.

Yes, that Dave Bliss, the former Baylor coach who shamed himself and the entire coaching profession. Yes, that Athletes in Action, the Christian organization whose mission is "building spiritual movements everywhere through the platform of sport."

Eric Nelson, AIA's director of basketball, told that Bliss will coach an AIA team at the Jones Cup in Taiwan in July. It will be his first coaching assignment for AIA.

Maybe AIA is the best place for Bliss to begin to make amends for his role in one of the most shocking scandals in sports history. It began when Baylor player Patrick Dennehy, a transfer from New Mexico, disappeared. Later, his body was found near an old gravel pit near Waco, Texas; he had been shot twice in the head.

Bears teammate/roommate Carlton Dotson, a junior college transfer, would wind up confessing to Dennehy's murder. Bliss, caught on tape by first-year assistant Abar Rouse, tried to persuade other Bears players to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer. Why would he do something so heinous? Because he was trying to cover up payments he had made to Dennehy and another player that he feared were about to come to light.

In an excerpt from one of the tapes, Bliss was addressing an unidentified player: "Take your time and try to piece some things together. Just remember that anything you can remember is going to help Baylor. We can get out of this. And, see, if Dotson hadn't killed Dennehy, we wouldn't be in this jam. So we don't deserve to be in this jam. The reason we're in this jam is because of a dead guy and a guy that murdered him, and that isn't fair for you and me and Abar to be in this jam, because we didn't do anything. It's not like we created this situation. We're the victims. If you read the papers, (expletive deleted), I'm the bad guy."

The comments are chilling. They jar the sensibilities. They're an affront to human decency. A college basketball coach, a veteran at that, a man in charge of young men, portraying a player who had been murdered as a drug dealer to save himself.

Bliss was forced to resign, and the NCAA hit him with a 10-year "show-cause order," meaning no member institution can hire him in any athletic role without the permission of the NCAA infractions committee until 2015. By that time, Bliss will be 72.

It seems incongruous for the coach of an AIA team to have such a sordid past. Nelson understands people may be taken aback.

"I can understand the question, and I really don't have a problem with people asking the question," Nelson said. "We have 16 teams that go out in the summer. He spoke at an event at the Final Four that we hosted. After spending a considerable amount of time with him there, we believe we've seen a life change due to his faith. There is redemption in life. I don't in any way expect people to fully understand; therefore, the questions are coming.

"He in no way is trying to find a way back into college basketball. This is an opportunity for him to be part of redemption in others' lives. He wants to share his mistakes. He's recognized and acknowledged and been forthright with people close to him. We don't want to continue to be part of the consequences for what he did wrong."

AIA approached Bliss about speaking to the National Association of Basketball Coaches at the Final Four. He took them up on the offer, addressing 300 to 400 of his former colleagues on the topic of ethics and the pressures of coaching.

"He's not pushing. He was flabbergasted in us asking him to help us," said Morris Michalski, AIA's basketball specialist who will head up the Jones Cup trip.

"The story at the Final Four that we wanted to present coaches the story was so many coaches out there are on the cusp of losing their way and of compromising because of the demands to win and overwork," Nelson said. "He fell into it, lost his way and acknowledged it. He said, 'I sacrificed everything I knew was right just to keep winning games.' "

" After spending a considerable amount of time with him (at the Final Four), we believe we've seen a life change due to his faith. There is redemption in life "
-Eric Nelson, AIA's director of basketball

Dane Brumagin, a rising senior at UMKC and a second-team All-Summit League selection this past season, will play for Bliss at the Jones Cup, a fact of which he was unaware until told him.

"I kind of remember the whole story, but I have no idea what he even looks like," Brumagin said. "That's when Coach (Scott) Drew wound up taking over, right? That's news to me."

Brumagin is looking forward to the trip no matter who the coach is.

"I think, first off, being asked it's quite an honor to be considered to go on something like this," said Brumagin, who was sixth in the Summit League in scoring last season at 17.1 points per game. "I like the fact it's Christian-based. Faith is very important to me. We're not only playing basketball but trying to make a difference. That was very attractive about it.

"Seeing a little bit of the world will be exciting, too."

Brumagin said he might look into what happened at Baylor "a little bit more, but it won't change my mind. I'll have faith everything will be all right."

North Dakota State forward Brett Winkelman, another member of the as-yet-unannounced Jones Cup team, told he already knew Bliss would coach him in Taiwan.

"I guess I found out a few weeks ago," said Winkelman, an All-Summit League first-team selection after averaging 18.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game this past season. "I e-mail and talk to the Athletes in Action people a lot, and I asked about the team, who I would be playing with and who the coach was.

"I know somebody who was a student manager for Coach Bliss at Baylor. I talked to him and got the inside scoop. I know he also spoke at the Final Four, and I guess his comments led a lot of people to believe he has moved past what happened and has turned his life around."

Winkelman said he had no misgivings about playing for Bliss. "I know there is controversy, but I believe he's rebounded from that," Winkelman said.

Nelson and Michalski must have faith that Bliss is a changed man. They know there's no way they could go for this if they didn't. But they've been around him now for a couple of months. They've spoken to him frequently. They say a higher power has taken root in Bliss' life.

The AIA officials don't believe what they're doing with the former coach would have been possible until now.

"It's a great lesson now, but he couldn't share it two or three years ago," Nelson said. "There seems to be enough distance now. Nobody was ready to listen, and he wasn't ready to talk.

"He felt like a leper, and he said that. He didn't have anything to give."

Only time will tell if his giving now is genuine.

"I realize there are people out there who will never forgive him, but that shouldn't keep him from talking or others from hearing about redemption," Nelson said.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for He can be reached at

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