Publish date:

Bliss Out Baylor coach Dave Bliss's reliance on juco transfers and troubled castoffs helped cost him his job

Dave Bliss was always cast as a reformer. While coaching
basketball at four universities over 28 years, he was known for
improving teams and trying to improve the fortunes of wayward
players. Often when one of his athletes got into trouble, Bliss
spoke as if the young man were a soul that had drifted away from
his congregation. "All of the preaching may not inhibit the
action," he said, "but that doesn't keep us from preaching."

At a press conference last week at Baylor it was Bliss, 59, who
appeared to need guidance. Worn from months of turmoil, he
resigned the day after the funeral of slain player Patrick
Dennehy. Athletic director Tom Stanton also quit. Their
departures came after a school investigation found that Bliss had
been involved in "serious or major" NCAA rules violations
(including improper financial aid payments to two players) and
that athletic department officials hadn't taken action after
learning of drug use by athletes.

"We've made mistakes," Bliss admitted only 11 days after he had
declared that the Bears' program was clean, "but we own up to
them from this point forth." The university imposed two years'
probation on the program, but it would also be wise to reflect on
why it hired Bliss, in 1999. There was abundant evidence that he
ran his teams more like Jerry Tarkanian than like the man who
gave him his first college coaching job, Bob Knight.

At Oklahoma ('75-80), SMU ('80-88) and New Mexico ('88-99), Bliss
won by stocking his rosters with junior college transfers and
players who had left four-year schools. At New Mexico, where he
achieved his greatest success (246 victories and seven NCAA
tournament appearances), Bliss coached about two dozen transfers.
Some of those players, and others he recruited, caused the school
embarrassment--as did Bliss himself.

In 1994 after Lobos star Charles Smith and teammate Cornelius
Ausborne were caught stealing $2,500 in property from a dorm,
Bliss condoned a deal under which the players made restitution
and campus police did not forward felony charges to the D.A.'s
office. Only after the incident was reported and Bliss was
criticized in the press did he suspend the players--for one game.

In 1998 another Lobo, Clayton Shields, was detained by police
after a gun belonging to a companion was fired in the air from a
car they were riding in while Shields entertained a high school
recruit. Shields was not charged with a crime, and Bliss did not
suspend him. "If every basketball player ... that had a gun gave
up his eligibility, we'd have fewer players," Bliss told The
Albuquerque Tribune.

The NCAA investigated allegations of violations involving New
Mexico players during Bliss's tenure, but the probe stalled
because some players refused to cooperate. And the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram reported that Bliss left SMU months after the NCAA
uncovered evidence of major violations, including booster
payments to a player. (Bliss could not be reached for comment.)

Baylor, the nation's largest Baptist university, nearly doubled
Bliss's salary (to a reported $600,000) to lure him to Waco,
hoping he could turn around a team that had just gone 6-24 (0-16
in the Big 12). His five recruiting classes included 21
transfers, among them Dennehy (who had been kicked off the New
Mexico team) and Carlton Dotson, who has been charged with
Dennehy's murder. A few of the players Bliss brought to Waco
carried guns, and marijuana use on the team was said to be

That Bliss could not turn Baylor into a winner (his record was
61-57 overall, 19-45 in the Big 12) underscores the school's
athletic plight. University officials say they are committed to
the conference, but this scandal--the third at Baylor since 1986
to result in sanctions--leaves them facing a hard question: At
what point does the effort to succeed in big-time athletics
derail the school's stated mission to promote "spiritual
maturity, strength of character and moral virtue"?

COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS (DENNEHY) Both Dennehy (inset) and Dotson (above) were among Bliss'squestionable recruits.