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 rampant.
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"?