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Dave Bliss: Triumph to catastrophe

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He led UNM to new heights, but his fall was monumental

The question asked of Dave Bliss seemed straightforward enough. What was he most proud of having accomplished in his redemptive, post-scandal life as a Texas prep school coach and athletic director?

Yet, Bliss hesitated.

Pride, he explained, is a word he has pushed to the nether regions of his vocabulary.

A decade ago at Baylor University, after all, Bliss’ pride went before one of the most stunning and catastrophic falls in college athletics history.

“I think pride caused me to make some of the (negative) decisions that I’ve made, so I try to stay away from that word,” said Bliss, the former University of New Mexico men’s basketball coach (1988-99) whose transgressions at Baylor, revealed in 2003, made him one of the most reviled figures in sports.

Over the years, Bliss told the Journal in a recent phone interview, he had forgotten why he got into coaching in the first place.

Dave Bliss left New Mexico for Baylor following the 1998-99 season, where he suffered one of the most catastrophic falls in NCAA history. (AP File)

Dave Bliss left New Mexico for Baylor following the 1998-99 season, where he suffered one of the most catastrophic falls in NCAA history. (AP File)

At Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, Bliss said, he practices those old values on a daily basis.

“I think the thing I enjoy is helping young people again,” he said. “That’s what God gifted me with.”

How far from Bliss’ faith-based values had he strayed?

A decade ago at Baylor, the murder of player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson raised questions about how Dennehy, a transfer from New Mexico not yet on scholarship, was paying his tuition.

Bliss then was recorded surreptitiously trying to frame the deceased player by ordering an assistant coach to say Dennehy was a drug dealer and used his drug money to pay for school.

In fact, Bliss was paying Dennehy’s way, and player Corey Herring’s, as well, in violation of NCAA rules. Bliss also admitted to paying Herring under the table and to lying to NCAA and Baylor investigators.

Those sordid revelations brought a sudden and shocking end to a 37-year college coaching career. The NCAA’s “show-cause” order effectively bans him until 2015, when he’ll turn 72.

Since his forced resignation at Baylor, Bliss has spent much of his time and effort seeking atonement and warning others not to stray down the same path. He spoke to coaches at the 2008 Final Four. That September, he spoke at a clinic in Albuquerque.

Dave Bliss talks to Lobo Kenny Thomas during an NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse in 1998. (AP File)

Dave Bliss talks to Lobo Kenny Thomas during an NCAA Tournament loss to Syracuse in 1998. (AP File)

“I can’t believe how prideful I was,” he said that day at Eldorado High School. “… I lost everything because of what I did. I don’t miss the money or being on television. I don’t even think about those things. What I miss is my team.”

Now, he has a team again.

Bliss, now 69, was hired as dean of students, athletic director and boys basketball coach at Allen Academy in 2010.

“This (school) is really similar to Albuquerque Academy,” he said. “… This is a great school academically, and I really think the reason they hired me here is to try to get athletics as part of the education to be, not on a par with academics, but to be competitive.”

Mission accomplished? Looks that way. Bliss’ boys basketball team has won three straight Texas Christian Athletic League Division II titles. The girls’ basketball team won two straight before finishing second this year. In May, the Rams baseball team won a state title.

But then, Bliss has always been pretty good at winning.

Opening act

He came to New Mexico in 1988 from Southern Methodist, where he’d coached the Mustangs to an average of 22 victories the previous five seasons, after then-UNM athletic director John Koenig had engineered the ouster of coach Gary Colson.

Koenig himself would be gone that July, caught up in a double-dipping scandal, but Bliss would be the Lobo men’s basketball coach for more years in succession – 11 – than any other coach in school history.

The case can be made that he was the most successful coach in the program’s history, as well.

This past spring, before Steve Alford disappointed Lobo fans by losing to Harvard in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and before he angered them by leaving for UCLA, it was said and written that the program had never been better.

Yet, did Alford take the Lobos to seven NCAA Tournaments in the span of nine years? No, but Bliss did.

Dave Bliss instructs Royce Olney on the first day of basketball practice in 1997. (Journal File

Dave Bliss instructs Royce Olney on the first day of basketball practice in 1997. (Journal File

Has Alford, or any other Lobo men’s basketball coach, won 246 games? No, only Bliss.

Coaching, and winning, was something he’d been preparing for most of his life.

Bliss, an upstate New York native, was a basketball and baseball star at Cornell (1961-65). As a senior, he helped the Big Red beat Army 65-61. That day, Bliss’ competitive spirit made a lasting impression on a young Cadets assistant coach named Bob Knight.

In 1967, Knight, having become Army’s head coach, hired Bliss as a Cadets assistant. Knight then brought Bliss to Indiana in ’71.

Bliss became the head coach at Oklahoma in 1975, then moved to SMU in 1980. Both jobs were in the heart of football country, and he told the throng at his first UNM news conference that he was thrilled to come to a place where folks really cared about basketball.

He will never forget, Bliss said, his first game as UNM’s coach in November 1988. The opponent was Spirit Express, a traveling team, in an exhibition game at the Pit.

“(That night),” he said, “there was one of those quick snowfalls that when I was at Oklahoma or some of the other places, the crowd would be half of what it normally would be.”

Scott Duncan, a Colson assistant whom Bliss had retained, assured him the people would come.

They did. A crowd of 15,327 watched the Lobos labor to an 86-84 victory in a game that didn’t count.

“I was astounded by that,” Bliss said. “I think that’s the thing I always appreciated, is that (the fans) might come to yell at us a little bit, but they were gonna come for sure.”

In that first season at UNM, 1988-89, Bliss had inherited a team of considerable talent – ready-made, it appeared, to do some real damage in the Western Athletic Conference. There was sharp-shooting sophomore guard Rob Robbins; physical power forward Charlie Thomas; an experienced point guard in Darrell McGee; a precocious freshman guard in Willie Banks.

Dave Bliss reacts to Kenny Thomas, right, as Royce Olney looks on during a game at Arizona in 1998. Bliss’ Lobos won two WAC tournaments and one regular-season league title. (Journal File)

Dave Bliss reacts to Kenny Thomas, right, as Royce Olney looks on during a game at Arizona in 1998. Bliss’ Lobos won two WAC tournaments and one regular-season league title. (Journal File)

Above all, figuratively and literally, there was 7-foot-2 Australian center Luc Longley.

Yet, just two regular-season games into the Bliss era, the Lobos fell 64-53 in the Pit to a far less talented University of San Diego team.

So began the tortured relationship between Bliss and the Colson recruits.

The transition

Colson’s laid-back, fatherly style of coaching and Bliss’ demanding, distant approach were – in Longley’s Aussie lexicon – “chalk and cheese.”

Marvin McBurrows, a 6-foot-4 forward from El Paso, entered the UNM program as a freshman under Colson in 1987-88. He at first was pleased with the switch because, after playing only 34 minutes all season for Colson as a freshman, he was a starter the next two seasons under Bliss.

As time wore on, though, McBurrows found Bliss to be an unapproachable, calculating man who seemed to see his players more as means to an end than as individuals.

“Colson befriended players, while Bliss befriended no one, except perhaps (lead assistant coach) Doug Ash,” McBurrows, a U.S. Army major stationed in Europe, wrote in an email to the Journal . “… All his decisions were based on a business end-state. It was all business and never personal.”

Bliss, using different words, does not disagree.

“All the way along,” he said, “I’ve been blessed by (having) really good teams, and I really enjoyed coaching them. But the way the job went, the dictates of the job, I didn’t have that same relationship of really enjoying helping and encouraging kids in the manner I started out.”

In spite of the lingering disconnect, the Lobos earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament in 1991, Longley, Robbins and McBurrows’ senior year. It was UNM’s first NCAA berth since 1978.

In 1992-93, the DOP (Dave’s own players) era began with a second NCAA berth. Through the 1998-99 season, after which Bliss left for Baylor, UNM missed the Big Dance only once.

During that span, Bliss teams averaged 23 victories per season and won three WAC titles (tournament or regular season). Bliss twice was named WAC Coach of the Year.

Players such as Williams, Khari Jaxon, Greg Brown, Marlow White, Charles Smith, Clayton Shields, Royce Olney, Lamont Long and Kenny Thomas, all recruited to UNM by Bliss and his staff, made it possible.

Sandia High School graduate David Gibson, Bliss’ starting point guard from 1994-98, has far less chilly memories of Bliss than McBurrows does.

“I think I can understand how some players would feel (the way McBurrows did),” said Gibson, now the head boys basketball coach at Manzano. “I think coach Bliss had different relationships with different players, so there was not a standard or a template for how he related to guys. I think that’s just the way he was.”

Gibson will always be grateful, he said, that Bliss made good on a promise to give him an athletic scholarship after he joined the team as a freshman without one.

“He kept his word,” Gibson said, “and I went on to have a great career and got to start for four years.”

After Gibson was named head coach at Manzano in April 2012, he said, he got an email from Bliss.

“He wished me well and told me that if he could do anything, if I wanted to talk X’s and O’s with him, he’d love sit down and do that.

“We obviously haven’t had the chance to do anything like that yet, but I definitely feel like, if I called him, he would be there for me.”

For Bliss, among those 246 victories at UNM, does one game stand out?

“I think it’s when we finally beat Eastern New Mexico,” Bliss said, a joking reference to his Lobos’ embarrassing 81-76 loss to the Greyhounds at the Pit in 1991. “I think I was Man of the Year over there in Portales.”

The Lobos got their revenge in 1994, smoking ENMU 110-49.

Kidding aside, Bliss fondly recalled Shields’ half-court buzzer shot that beat New Mexico State at the Pan American Center in 1995 and Olney’s 3-pointer that beat Rick Majerus’ third-ranked Utah Utes in the Pit in 1998.

“God rest his soul, I loved competing against Rick Majerus,” Bliss said of the former Utah coach, who died last December. “… And, going through the Baylor thing, he was one of my best friends.”

Some got away

So, all was pretty much rosy during Bliss’ 11-year tenure. Right?

Not exactly. Winning didn’t solve everything, nor did he win enough to please everyone.

On the court, there were the big ones that got away. Bliss’ NCAA Tournament teams took three tries to get past the first round and never made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

“I think we all felt like we were snake-bit, to be honest,” Gibson said, “because we’d had some really good teams and had some really good runs and for whatever reason we just weren’t able to play our best basketball at the end of the year.”

Those losses in the NCAA rounds of 64 or 32 grated on Lobo Nation. Bliss, looking back, said he not only understands that frustration but shares it.

“The one that really stuck in my craw was the Louisville game (in 1997, a 64-63 second-round defeat) because I felt we were better than them,” he said.

If Bliss didn’t always win the big one on the court, that was true off the court, as well.

In 1992, the UNM Athletic Council censured Bliss for his role in helping Lobo guard Steve Logan stay eligible by enrolling in six hours’ worth of credit classes with just one week left in the fall semester.

Bliss angrily pointed out at the time that, as absurd as the situation seemed, any UNM student – not just an athlete – could have done the same.

Several times during his 11 years in Albuquerque, Bliss was assailed for the relatively light punishments he doled out regarding player-behavior issues.

One of several examples: In 1994, Smith, a star guard, and backup guard Cornelius Ausborne were involved in a dormitory burglary and arrested for shoplifting. Bliss suspended them for one game, and then only after the incidents became public.

Through it all, Bliss continued to pile up the victories at New Mexico. At Baylor, however, competing against the likes of Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, his Bears teams went 19-45 in four seasons (1999-2003) of conference play.

Then came the revelation of deeds that Bliss himself has labeled as “despicable” and that made him a pariah in his chosen profession.

Still, post-Baylor, Bliss never lost the desire to coach. He had an unsuccessful stint in the Continental Basketball Association; briefly volunteered at a Denver-area high school before parental opposition caused him to step away; coached a Christian-based Athletes in Action team in China.

Then, in 2010, he applied for the vacancy at Allen Academy.

John Rouse, Allen’s head of school at the time, said he was startled to see Bliss’ name on a list of applicants. Nevertheless, Rouse, who himself had just been hired, gave Bliss an interview.

“He brought up (the Baylor history) right out front,” Rouse said.

A positive discussion with Robert Sloan, who was president at Baylor when Bliss was forced out, helped persuade Rouse that Bliss was the right man for the job. Despite concern from some parents and from some members of the Allen Academy Board of Trustees – as well as an anguished protest from Brian Brabazon, Dennehy’s stepfather – Bliss was hired.

More controversy

But was he up to his old tricks?

In November 2010, Bliss and Allen Academy were sanctioned by the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools for alleged improper recruiting inducements. TAPPS, also alleging that Bliss forged Rouse’s signature on a transfer form, slapped Allen Academy with a two-year probation and Bliss with a one-year suspension.

Bliss says the parents of the students in question recruited him and Allen Academy, not vice versa.

“They weren’t Parade All-Americans or McDonald’s All-Americans,” he said. “They were just kids that wanted to go to a private school and the ones down in Houston (where they lived) cost $20,000, and this one’s half that.”

Regarding the forged signature, Rouse said it was a deadline situation and that the form in question was something he would have signed without hesitation. The matter was handled internally, he said, and the incident did not lower his opinion of Bliss.

Of Bliss’ performance in all facets of his job the past three years, Rouse said, “It was way beyond my expectations.”

Rouse also said there had been previous conflicts between TAPPS and Allen Academy. Rather than submit to the TAPPS sanctions, Allen Academy simply switched to the TCAL.

There, Bliss, coaching and hiring coaches, has made the Rams a consistent winner – not just in boys basketball but across the board.

“The year before I got there, they had a losing record in every sport that we had,” Bliss said. “This year, we had a winning record in all our sports.”

Winning never gets old, but for Bliss, 11 years into his career at UNM, the 1998-99 season was a taxing one. He seemed progressively weary and fed up with the Albuquerque “fishbowl.”

On March 26, 1999, 13 days after a blowout loss to eventual national champion Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Bliss announced he was leaving for Baylor.

He insisted it was the attractiveness of the Baylor job, not the fishbowl, that prompted the move. Simply, he said, it was about knowing when to leave the party.

He harbors only fond memories now, he said, of his 11 years as keeper of the keys at New Mexico.

He looks back, not with pride, he said, but with appreciation.

“When I talk to people,” he said, “I wish I could share two things with them. One thing is, I wish they could have worked for Bob Knight for six years.

“The second is, I wish they could coach a game in the Pit.”

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