Commentary

Bliss tries to get 'life back in order'

Originally Published: May 7, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

There is nothing former Baylor coach Dave Bliss can say, nothing he can do that will change anything. To most people, Bliss' name will always be synonymous with the darkest scandal in college basketball history.

Dave Bliss
AP Photo/Deborah CannonSince leaving Baylor in 2003, Dave Bliss has gradually tried to get himself back into coaching, though not at the collegiate level.
In the eyes of people like Brian Brabazon, stepfather of the murdered player Bliss tried to paint as a drug dealer to cover up his own NCAA misdeeds, Bliss will never be forgivable, he said in January.

For five years Bliss hid, knowing the scrutiny and the backlash would be unrelenting. He stayed away and stayed silent, not even attempting to explain what happened at Baylor in the summer of 2003, not even bothering to ask for any sort of understanding, let alone forgiveness.

Slowly and quietly this year, he has emerged from his exile, taking tentative baby steps to reintroduce himself into the college basketball world he denigrated with his selfish and reckless actions.

In early April, Bliss went to the Final Four for the first time since the year it all happened -- when Patrick Dennehy was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson and Bliss was forced to resign, sending Baylor University's basketball program into a tailspin in an unforgettable three months in 2003. Bliss said he couldn't go to the Final Four before, in part because of shame, but more because "I had to get my life back in order."

In San Antonio, he soaked up the familiarity of the game's ultimate weekend, encouraged by friends in the profession to not just come but to speak at a National Association of Basketball Coaches seminar. His topic was ethics and pressures of college basketball, his forum provided by Athletes in Action.

Cynics looked at it as some sort of joke. Bliss speaking about ethics? Bliss representing Athletes in Action, the sports ministry?

But Bliss now is immune, if not indifferent, to the snide remarks.

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He's said he's not looking for forgiveness or interested in salvaging his own name. Like a drunken driver speaking to a roomful of high schoolers on the eve of the prom, Bliss is hoping he can scare people straight.

"I want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem anymore," said Bliss, speaking recently by telephone from his Colorado home. "There are a lot of pitfalls out there, minefields. Look at me. I know. I've been on both sides."

Bliss believes he is the perfect cautionary tale for a sport swinging wildly out of control.

He sees coaches like LSU's John Brady go from Final Four to midseason firing in the span of two years. He reads about Kelvin Sampson's NCAA flameout at Indiana. And he watches Oklahoma State push Sean Sutton out the door after two years in Stillwater.

He sees a sports culture consumed by winning immediately, a society that has raised athletics on such a high pedestal that a free-falling crash is inevitable.

And Bliss knows that, for coaches, the pressure to succeed can easily dovetail into the temptation to skirt, bend and then obliterate the rules, sending priorities into a spin cycle of disarray.

It's a situation that defies much explanation, really. I got caught up, very frankly, in ambition, prideful reaction. And I made bad decisions, and the cover-up made everything worse.

--Dave Bliss

That's what he said happened to him. In his desperation to win, he said, he found himself on a slippery slope that ended with a chilling tape recording in which Bliss suggested he could avoid NCAA sanctions by spreading word that Dennehy got his extra cash not from Bliss, but by dealing drugs.

The embarrassment and criticism that Bliss received -- in its ruling, even the NCAA lambasted Bliss for his "despicable behavior" -- was nothing compared to the pain and shame he said he felt inside.

"I was the frog that jumped in the box, and all of a sudden someone turned on the heat and gradually it got warmer and eventually it was too late," Bliss said. "It's a situation that defies much explanation, really. I got caught up, very frankly, in ambition, prideful reaction. And I made bad decisions, and the cover-up made everything worse.

"It's a game, a great game, and it really matters when you're doing it. But it's definitely not the most important thing in anybody's life. But you lose sight of that when you're in it. I didn't think I had let that happen to me, but for a period of time, it's pretty evident I did."

After leaving Baylor in disgrace, Bliss spent a year volunteering at his son's Colorado high school and the bulk of a summer touring China giving clinics. In 2005 he got back into coaching, with the Dakota Wizards of the Continental Basketball Association, but that lasted just a year.

Now working with Athletes in Action, he is toying with coaching one of the group's summer teams.

[+] EnlargeDave Bliss
AP Photo/Paul SakumaDave Bliss, left, arrives at a memorial service for Patrick Dennehy behind then Baylor AD Tom Stanton.
That might beg the question: Is this just some sort of reclamation tour so that Bliss can worm his way back into the game's good graces and ultimately back into the profession?

If it is, it's a long-term plan.

He is only midway through a 10-year show-cause penalty, which prohibits any school from hiring him unless it first receives approval from the NCAA.

Bliss said he misses coaching and still considers college basketball "a great game and one of the greatest opportunities for young people," but he is content helping his family run a Colorado-based Internet company that offers online occupational training.

"I have other things in my life now," he said. "I have a different focus on things. I've realized a lot of things in the last few years. My faith has withstood a lot, what I have gone through, what I put my family through, how I hurt the university that I loved and so many other people. It wasn't intended to go in that direction, but sometimes life takes funny turns. You have to take responsibility for your actions to try and get better and move forward. That's what I'm trying to do now."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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