Commentary

Rouse in oblivion five years after Baylor scandal

Originally Published: May 6, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Every night it's the same. He leaves his one-bedroom apartment, hops in his 10-year-old car and clocks in to work at the factory in Wichita Falls, Texas. For eight hours, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., he makes airplane parts.

When his shift is over, he gets back in his beat-up Toyota Corolla and goes back to his depressing apartment. He sleeps until 2 p.m. and in the afternoon, he might drop a few more résumés in the mail.

[+] EnlargeAbar Rouse
Jason PalmerFive years after Rouse's brief stint as a Division I assistant coach, he makes airplane parts in a factory in Wichita Falls, Texas.
He is beyond broke. His credit cards are maxed out, his credit ruined. He has humbled himself and borrowed from his mother, tapping her out almost as badly as himself. Desperately in need of overtime pay, he has not taken more than two days off in a month since the fall.

This was not Abar Rouse's plan. For six years after graduating from Baylor University, he chased his dream of becoming a top-level college basketball coach. He lived in the tiny outposts necessary to climb the coaching ladder before landing at his alma mater, finally an assistant coach at a Division I university.

Three months later, it was over.

While Baylor was reeling with the disappearance and death of Patrick Dennehy, Rouse secretly recorded a conversation with head coach, Dave Bliss. The conversation exposed Bliss' plan to paint Dennehy, the murder victim, as a drug dealer in order to cover up Bliss' NCAA-violating payment to Dennehy.

The tape, part of an NCAA investigation, threw acid on an already painful wound, marrying the devastating circumstances of a teammate-on-teammate murder with NCAA sanctions and a heinous act of self-preservation by a coach whose deceit decimated a basketball program and stained a university.

Since then, Baylor has resurrected itself from the ashes, riding the wave of a feel-good story into the NCAA tournament last season. Carlton Dotson, Dennehy's teammate and murderer, is behind bars. Even Bliss is resuscitating his career. He's working with Athletes in Action and may coach the group's traveling team this summer. This year, as a speaker at the coaches' convention, he went back to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.

As the fifth anniversary of Dennehy's disappearance nears next month, the only loose ends belong to Rouse.

Hundreds of coaches milled round San Antonio's Riverwalk in early April wearing logoed golf shirts to proudly announce their school affiliation during the Final Four, which doubles as a convention for the National Association of Basketball Coaches.

Rouse, who lives in the same state, wasn't one of them. No one could stop him from coming, but he also knew he was not welcome.

In an occupation in which rule-breakers repeatedly are given second chances -- Todd Bozeman paid $30,000 to a recruit while head coach at Cal and this year coached Morgan State; Indiana hired Kelvin Sampson, Oklahoma baggage notwithstanding; and Sampson's assistant, Rob Senderoff, who took the fall at IU for Sampson, was recently hired at Kent State -- Rouse is a basketball pariah. He said he has been blackballed, labeled a snitch and a turncoat.

Our profession has a distorted view of right and wrong sometimes. I'm right in the middle of it, don't get me wrong. But sometimes the things you see are pretty disgusting.

--Jeff Ray, head coach of Midwestern State

Many coaches, including Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, have said that Rouse had crossed the line. "If one of my assistants would tape every one of my conversations with me not knowing it, there's no way he would be on my staff," Krzyzewski told "Outside the Lines" in 2003. The rank and file has fallen in step.

Despite beating down seemingly every door and mailing out countless résumés, Rouse has had only one basketball job in the past five years, a graduate assistant position at Division II Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls. In October he made the agonizing decision to quit, unable to survive on the $8,000 annual salary.

He has filed a lawsuit against his former attorney, claiming she gave a local newspaper the tape recordings of Bliss, thereby outing him to the coaching community and killing his career. She refutes his claim.

But even if he wins the case, he says, he won't win back his career. While Rouse works the graveyard shift, his career is dead and buried.

"I'm thousands of dollars in debt, no longer in the profession I went to school to pursue," said Rouse, whose $42,000 annual salary at Baylor was the most he'd ever made coaching basketball. "And I can tell you right now, five years later, working nightshift at a factory, making barely the minimum to survive, I don't regret it for one second. I wake up every day knowing that principles mean something."

The Baylor scandal


A faithful man who intentionally chose the Baptist religious foundation of Baylor for his education, Rouse only wanted to be a basketball coach and held five other jobs before landing at his alma mater.

He was hired in June 2003. Weeks later, Dennehy went missing.

With the campus still reeling from Dennehy's disappearance, an unrelated internal investigation revealed that Bliss had given improper tuition payments for two players. One of them was Dennehy.

On July 26, Dennehy's body was discovered.

Desperate to save his own hide, Bliss told his assistant coaches he wanted to float the story that Dennehy was a drug dealer, thereby explaining away the money Bliss had given to him.

Fearful that he would be fired if he didn't go along with the plan, Rouse recorded a conversation with Bliss. According to one newspaper account, Bliss had put a copy of Rouse's contract, highlighting the portion that showed he could hire and fire assistant coaches, on his desk after Rouse told Bliss he wasn't comfortable with the plan. On the tape, Bliss is heard saying, "Our whole thing right now, we can get out of this. Reasonable doubt is there's nobody right now that can say we paid Pat Dennehy because he's dead. So what we need to do is create reasonable doubt."

Rouse turned the information over to the NCAA in August. In August, Bliss and athletic director Tom Stanton resigned. Bliss, as well as assistant coaches Rodney Belcher and Doug Ash, were each hit with show-cause orders (meaning other colleges would have to appeal if they chose to hire them) for related NCAA transgressions, including major recruiting violations and providing extra benefits, including payment, to student-athletes. Rouse received no penalty. Belcher is now working as an assistant coach with a high school girls basketball team in Texas; Ash is an NBA scout.

Not once did Rouse think his decision would be career suicide. His career, frankly, wasn't even on his mind. As a Christian, he said, he thought "principles mean something if you apply them when it's inconvenient." As a graduate of Baylor, he thought he was obligated to do the right thing by his school.

Most of all, Rouse couldn't imagine impugning the reputation of a dead man.

[+] EnlargePatrick Dennehy's funeral
Damon Winter/Dallas Morning News/Getty ImagesValorie Brabazon is comforted during the funeral of her son, former Baylor player Patrick Dennehy in 2003.
"I think you have to weigh your career versus how you protect kids," Rouse said. "That was the only thought process going through my head. A career is a small thing in comparison to a life, a small thing in comparison to morals and values."

But Rouse did lose his job and ultimately his career. When Scott Drew was hired at Baylor in late August 2003, he elected to bring in his own staff. "I respect the decisions they made," Rouse said stoically. He then added a more emotional, "I do. I honestly do."

"Most coaches bring in guys that they know, and I didn't know him," Drew said recently. "I want to see what's best for him, but the coaching profession is hard. It's like a lot of jobs. It's hard to get back in."

Assistant coaches are basketball's Secret Service, there to step in and take a bullet when one is fired at the man in charge. Indiana's Senderoff was sent packing long before the NCAA's tentacles reached Sampson; Dwane Casey took the initial heat for Eddie Sutton at Kentucky in 1989. Taking the fall is an act of honor, despite the fact it usually means some sort of violation occurred.

Turning a coach in, deservedly or not, is viewed through an altogether different prism. Among coaches who pontificate about integrity and ethics -- the NABC, then headed ironically enough by Sampson, called an emergency summit the fall after the Baylor scandal to discuss the very thing -- there is a hypocritical silent code: Thou shalt not drop a dime on one another. Or at least get caught doing so.

And in a career in which networking is critical for job placement, those who go against the silent code are exiled, left to scrap their way back or wait in hope that someone offers a lifeboat.

"Our profession has a distorted view of right and wrong sometimes," said Jeff Ray, the head coach at Midwestern who didn't hesitate to hire Rouse. "I'm right in the middle of it, don't get me wrong. But sometimes the things you see are pretty disgusting. Why is there this black cloud hanging over him? He did nothing wrong. To me, this is all a testimony to the sad state of affairs of our profession."

With five years of clarity and introspection, Bliss now sees the scandal for what it was. He is remorseful and ashamed, embarrassed for what he did to his family and his university and equally contrite about how his actions have impacted Rouse. Three years ago, Bliss called Rouse. He wanted to apologize and to offer his help, even though he knew his name wasn't likely to open any doors for his former assistant.

Rouse recalled the conversation, not necessarily with fondness or gratitude. "There was some attempt made," he said. But Bliss steadfastly insisted he wanted Rouse to know that he was sorry.

Bliss isn't, however, surprised that Rouse hasn't been able to find a job. He doesn't see the shunning any differently than Ray, but Bliss said he believes Rouse, as a new assistant, failed to recognize the gravity of his actions, how they would be perceived in the coaching community. Bliss said he also believes, as Rouse contends in his lawsuit against his former attorney, that Rouse never intended for the tapes to become public.

"I've gotten past judging people; I judge my own actions and they were wrong," Bliss said. "The thing about his actions, I think that's where a little bit of the misunderstanding occurred -- on his part. I feel badly because I think I let him down. I felt like I didn't do a very good job of mentoring him.

"I called [a few years ago] because I knew there would probably be people who did not understand the situation. I wanted him to know that I understood as much as I could and that I wanted to help him have another opportunity, that I think he is deserving of another opportunity."

Few opportunities


The road back for those viewed as snitches is neither well-worn nor easy to navigate. Bruce Pearl today is the fun-loving, orange-chested personality who has turned Tennessee into a powerhouse. Under Pearl's guidance this season, the Vols handed Memphis its lone regular-season loss, earned the program's first No. 1 ranking and rolled into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. He is considered one of the best in his profession.

O'Neil on Baylor's resurgence

It's been five years since a crippling scandal almost destroyed Baylor's basketball program. Now, with a new coach and a clean slate, Baylor is starting to reassert itself in the Big 12 ranks. Dana O'Neil

Nine years ago he wore the same scarlet letter that Rouse now carries. As an assistant at Iowa, he turned in Illinois in 1989, tape recording and taking notes of conversations with recruit Deon Thomas, during which Thomas said the Illini offered him money and a car to sign with them. The Illini were found guilty of major infractions by the NCAA.

With that decision went Pearl's reputation. Though considered a top-flight assistant, he spent more than a dozen years on the Division II level before scrapping his way back to the D-I heights.

Rouse is well-versed in Pearl's story. He calls the Tennessee coach "an inspiration" and hopes that Pearl is not the exception to the rule, that someone will take a chance on Rouse just as Southern Indiana did on Pearl by hiring him in 1992.

Pearl, though, had a foundation at the Division I level and a Rolodex stuffed with relevant names and phone numbers to network in a profession in which who you know can be far more important than what you know. With just three months on the job at Baylor, Rouse didn't have enough contacts to call on.

Deep down, Rouse is more puzzled than anything. He hears his peers preaching about honesty, sees them punishing kids for breaking rules and failing to live up to the university standards, and wonders why they look askance at him.

He believes part of it is guilt by association, that people see the words "Baylor" and "Bliss" and run the other way. The necessary public-relations explanation isn't worth the aggravation for a coach three seats down the bench.

Given the chance to explain himself, Rouse believes he could persuade an athletic department that hiring him would be a good decision. But he's never even been asked to share his side. Responses on his blind résumés have been few and far between; none of them positive.

"Did I ever think it would take this long to get back into coaching?" Rouse said. "I am stunned, shocked and surprised. I think it's important that the people who mentor student-athletes have principles and morals and values. I want to believe that presidents and athletic directors truly want people of high character caring for their kids. I thought that was why they would hire me."

I'm thousands of dollars in debt, no longer in the profession I went to school to pursue. And I can tell you right now. ... I don't regret it for one second. I wake up every day knowing that principles mean something.

--Abar Rouse

Bliss strongly believes Rouse deserves another job. Certainly guilt has to partially fuel his hopes, but Bliss said the qualities he saw in a young coach at a nearby junior college would still be applicable today.

"He was a bright young coach, articulate, and he really cares about the players," said Bliss, who had no idea how badly things had turned for Rouse. "I thought he would be very capable of mentoring the players, and when I say mentoring, I mean encouraging them. I watched him across town at the junior college and I really enjoyed watching him work with his players. My intention was to have him do the same thing at Division I.

"I really feel badly for how things have worked out, but I choose to think that good things will happen and he'll have the opportunities because he's deserving of them. I hope that his faith is helping him through it. He still has a purpose. He has good intentions and his abilities are terrific."

But in five years, only Ray stuck out his neck.

Rouse attended Midwestern for a year before transferring to Baylor and took his first coaching job there. Ray knew Rouse as a tireless worker and good recruiter and believed, contrary to the code, that he was a more desirable hire because of what he did at Baylor.

"My philosophy is, you want someone to be loyal to you, you have to be worth being loyal to," said Ray, who has just one full-time assistant's position on his staff and would offer it to Rouse "in a minute" if it was open. "We're not dealing with phone calls or giving $50 to a kid; we're dealing with a murder and covering up an investigation."

An ensuing lawsuit


The kicker is Rouse said he never intended for his tape recording to become public.

Rouse made the tape as part of an NCAA investigation, not criminal investigation, and said he believed only NCAA people would be privy to it.

He is suing his former attorney, LaNelle McNamara, for violation of attorney-client privilege. Seeking $1.5 million in damages, Rouse alleges in the lawsuit that McNamara released the tapes to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and as written in the lawsuit, if she "had exercised proper care and diligence Rouse would not have been 'blacklisted' in the college basketball community where top college basketball coaches opined on ESPN sports network that they would not hire him."

Rouse, with his new lawyer, Melodee Mata, present during his phone interview with ESPN.com, refused to comment on the particulars of the lawsuit.

"I didn't expose a head coach; I didn't do that," Rouse said. "I went to the proper authorities and told them what was going on, and I let that case be heard by them. It would have been handled discreetly. In other NCAA investigations, countless other investigations, the coaching staff and many go in and tell the truth. It's never figured out where that truth came from. It's handled discreetly. My trust and confidence were breached by others."

McNamara sees it differently. Reached at her office in Waco, Texas, McNamara said she did not turn the tapes over to the newspaper.

"To this day I have no idea how those tapes were transcribed," she said.

McNamara said she first heard of Rouse when he contacted her on the advice of Danny Robbins, the Star-Telegram reporter who later wrote the first story about Rouse's recording of Bliss' conversation. McNamara said she never heard from Rouse until he called her from the Waco police station, where he was about to take a polygraph test as part of the criminal investigation into Dennehy's disappearance.

She said she went to the station that day and continued to help Rouse through his NCAA interviews, adding that Rouse and Robbins were in constant contact the entire time.

I really feel badly for how things have worked out, but I choose to think that good things will happen and he'll have the opportunities because he's deserving of them.

--Dave Bliss

"He talked to Danny all the time," she said. "And Abar had the tapes with him all the time."

Robbins, who is still a reporter at the Star-Telegram, doesn't refute any of that.

But he did say both McNamara and Rouse told him about the existence of the tapes, and that McNamara told Robbins she would make the tapes available to him before she turned them over to the NCAA investigators.

"She said that Abar wanted me to have them," Robbins said.

Rouse declined to comment, through his lawyer, about Robbins' claims.

The day before McNamara and Rouse were going to meet with the NCAA, Robbins said he collected the tapes from McNamara at her home, and that he stayed up until midnight transcribing the tapes. The next morning, Robbins said, he returned the tapes to McNamara's office and both she and Rouse were present when he did that.

"I remember talking to Abar," Robbins said. "He said, 'What if this ruins my career?' I told him that I didn't think it would come to that, that I hoped it wouldn't."

McNamara does not deny giving the tapes to Robbins. But McNamara said neither she nor Rouse expected Robbins to publish the transcripts or any information from the tapes.

"I thought he wanted to listen to them because he wanted to help Abar out," McNamara said. "Abar talked to Danny several times during that time period, and he indicated that he wanted Danny to listen to the tapes. But we did not think he was going to publish them."

The next day Robbins' story and a transcript of the recorded conversation ran in the newspaper.

[+] EnlargeDave Bliss
AP Photo/Jerry LaizureDave Bliss resigned as the Baylor head coach in the wake of his handling of Patrick Dennehy's murder.

"They were certainly aware I had the tapes and was transcribing them," he said when asked if Rouse and McNamara realized he would publish them. "I'm a reporter. Why else would I have them?"

The malpractice lawsuit, filed in McLennan County District Court in August of 2005, has yet to be heard.

Moving forward


Rouse's daughter, Ashanti, lives in Washington with her mother. She sees her father as often as he can get there, but traveling from Texas isn't cheap and time isn't exactly a luxury he has these days.

But the 14-year-old is with her dad every day, providing him the kick in the pants he needs to drag himself out of bed to go to work, and the moral compass when he wonders if principles are worth the hardships he's endured.

Ashanti also is part of the reason Abar Rouse decided he had to do something other than coach, at least for now. He would have gladly stayed at Midwestern, but along with the paltry salary, the job offered no health or retirement benefits. He couldn't justify that with Ashanti's future on the line as well as his own.

He said he's tried to land more white-collar jobs, but his credit is such a mess he often doesn't pass the requisite background checks to get hired. An education major, he never got certified to teach, intent always on coaching college basketball.

His factory job, while monotonous and exhausting, at least offers good pay, benefits and overtime. It is a steady paycheck, and Rouse believes this is the fastest way out of the mountain of debt he's accumulated. Rouse is behind on student loans and because he tried for three years to live on $8,000 (the demands of the coaching job, he said, didn't afford him the time for a part-time job) he's trapped in a minefield of debt that forces him to "rob Peter to pay Paul. In order for these people to get paid, sometimes these people don't."

Rouse says he remains undaunted. He believes with every fiber of his being that he did the right thing, that his life will ultimately right itself and that one day, he'll be back in his dream profession.

That's perhaps the most shocking thing of all. As poorly as basketball has treated him, Rouse wants back in.

"That's all I ever wanted to do," he said, "be a college basketball coach."

The coaching carousel has nearly completed its annual cycle of spinning names in and out, so hope springs anew for Rouse. He has sent out another round of applications, optimistic that maybe the Baylor stigma is lifting with the Bears' NCAA appearance this season, hopeful that someone will reward him for what he did.

It has been five years, a lifetime in a profession that considers a player's one-year college career a long-term commitment.

"I do believe. I do have hope," Rouse said. "I have faith in not only my god but in the goodness of people. There's no event in my life that could turn me into a cynic. None. I would have a hard time convincing young men to do the impossible if I let this situation make me a negative person. It won't happen."

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

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