Dave Bliss has risen from the ashes of a devastating college basketball scandal to share his story and help others find redemption through his two-year-old Game Plan Ministries and a new job as head boys basketball coach at Allen Academy (Bryan, Texas).
The 66-year-old coach, who also will serve as athletic director and dean of students at the state’s oldest college preparatory school, will be guiding a high school team for the first time in his career. While coaching Division I colleges Oklahoma, SMU, New Mexico and Baylor for a combined 28 years, he compiled a 525-328 record.
Bliss was forced to resign from Baylor in August 2003 following an investigation that eventually forced him to reveal that he had made illegal scholarship payments for players Patrick Dennehy and Corey Herring, but was initiated by the murder of Dennehy by former player Carlton Dotson. Though he was not the initiator, he tried to cover up his own activities by "falling in line with the popular theory" that the deceased Dennehy was victimized through drug dealing. "They were trying to figure out how he paid for his scholarship."
A story in the Dallas Morning News dated Aug. 17, 2003, quoted Baylor’s lead investigator, Bill Underwood, saying, "He (Bliss) didn’t make up the idea that this was the possibility of drug use. There’s been speculation all along that this killing might have been a drug deal."
Seven years later, Bliss admits the belief that he originated the drug story "is the thorn in my side." To this day, no one really knows the truth, because Dotson quickly confessed and accepted a prison term without a jury trial.
"I always laughed at people who cheated," said Bliss, who was mentored by Bob Knight as his assistant at West Point and Indiana University.
The summer before the scandal erupted, Bliss said Ellis Kidd and Terrance Thomas both were in summer school and he feared they would not make their grades, leaving him with depleted numbers. After signing Dennehy and Herring, he was surprised to find that Kidd and Thomas were eligible, after all, and he was over the scholarship limit.
"I cheated because I was an insecure man," he admitted. "Baylor cost more than a state school. The bill came due and I had one day to make my mind up. I couldn’t go to a booster. I could have cut them loose and none of this would have happened. I took a vow never to do it again (he paid $40,000 from his own savings).
"Then the murder happened and all kinds of panic happened. If I had thrown myself on the mercy of the community, it would have worked out a lot better."
The disgraced coach, who actually confessed what he had done before it was discovered by investigators, was banned from the college ranks for 10 years and Baylor was hit with a crippling NCAA probation.
One of the first calls Bliss received was from Bob Knight, "who was worried about me," he recalled. "Right away I apologized to him and to Jim Haney (National Association of Basketball Coaches director), because I loved coaching. I felt remorse, because I loved Baylor."
At this low point in his life, Bliss said, "God kind of did an autopsy on me. I looked back on what I’d done, because I wasn’t raised that way. That four-year valley experience (which followed) I was empty and in deep despair. I would read something and be in absolute tears. God met me every morning and encouraged me (through positive phone calls and other messages). I realized that when God is all you have, God is all you need. I speak a lot now – how success can put you in a position that you think of entitlement. I’m not in denial about what I did. In my lowest moments, I saw people who were worse off than me."
His life took a major turn upward in September of 2007 when he spoke to a group of 700 at the Salesmanship Club of Dallas. Later that fall he met Mo Michalski, who coaches basketball for Athletes in Action, a worldwide Christian sports ministry based in Xenia, Ohio.
Michalski’s first impression: "It was evident reformation was taking place in his life. There was a humility that was really refreshing about him. I asked, ‘Would you be willing to tell your story about how you got yourself into this quicksand and what do you want coaches to know?’ ’’
A few months later Michalski approached broadcaster Ernie Johnson, who interviewed a panel of coaches each year during the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. Johnson agreed to spend the entire 60-minute session interviewing only Bliss at the 2008 finals in San Antonio.
Bliss called his talk to approximately 500 coaches "a purging of sorts. A lot of coaches want to learn how to beat the press, but they have to be serious about life and not let the world turn their heads. I liken myself to a traveling back rub."
Thoroughly impressed, Michalski asked Bliss to coach the AIA basketball team when it traveled to Taiwan in July 2008 to compete in the prestigious Jones Cup. The strong field included "the three best teams – other than China – in that part of the world," according to Michalski.
"He came with fear and trembling," Michalski described. "He was great, humble and forthright. He even told his story to the guys on our team. His story is really compelling. He was endearing to the players and other coaches in the tourney. He brought coaches to 7 a.m. Bible studies – even Egypt and Qatar."
The Americans went all the way to the title game, where they lost a heartbreaker in overtime to Jordan.
Michalski concluded that Bliss "is definitely one of those guys who has made a real shift from success to significance. In the future he wants to be a multiplier and has really battled to seek God’s forgiveness and self forgiveness. He’s going to be a really good spokesman for this idea of redemption.
"Dave’s life parallels a lot like the life of Chuck Colson (former White House power broker who spent time in prison, which spawned a prison ministry). To the basketball world, he may become a Chuck Colson."
Bliss was so buoyed by his Taiwan experience that he moved to Texas in September 2008 and launched the Game Plan Ministries, a nonprofit organization which he calls "an outreach of encouragement and support to all people, especially coaches, student-athletes and administrators. I want coaches to feel strongly about their faith and helping kids. I want people to discover what their true potential is."
He now speaks at clinics, seminars, power lunches, church settings, team gatherings and even does one-on-one counseling. He deals especially with aspects of pride, ambition and priority. Bliss estimates that over the last year-and-a-half he has shared his religious faith and basketball knowledge with close to 8,000 people. "They throw me all the people out on the island, because that’s who I specialize in," he said.
Former University of Texas wide receiver Brandon Collins is a great example of mentoring by Bliss, who stressed, "He was in the wrong spot at the wrong time. He was crushed and was out on an island. I know how hopeless he felt." Collins had been dropped from the team and was facing drug charges when he met Bliss.
"He’s been helping me out ever since," Collins said. "He helped me get back in touch with The Lord – back on the right path – and was a big inspiration. You lose sight of your morals and why you’re really on the earth. He wrote letters for me (to the grand jury and prosecutor). I was cleared of all charges."
Collins happily added that he soon will sign a football scholarship with a non-Division I college and will be eligible in the fall.
On another occasion, Bliss spent two days in Dallas with Braxton Benvenuti, a sophomore basketball guard at Hagerty (Oviedo, Fla.), at the urging of his grandfather, Dave Curry. Curry explained that his grandson had just moved from Flint, Mich., "and was struggling a little bit with grades and attitude. He (Bliss) really got into his head and helped him a lot. He told him, ‘I’ve coached you; now you’ve got to go home and coach yourself.’ Dave has such a heart and love for kids."
Since then, Curry said, Braxton has raised two grades to a "B" and has an improved attitude about his new surroundings in Florida. Bliss, of course, mentors plenty of coaches, among them close friends Rob Shivers of San Marcos (Texas) and Brad Lacey of Canyon (New Braunfels, Texas). Lacey has known Bliss for 13 years and admitted, "Like everybody, I was shocked and disappointed when everything happened at Baylor. A year ago I was really impressed by his talk (to the Texas High School Basketball Coaches Association). I invited him to practice and it blossomed into a real good friendship.
"We had a good start (this year), but then we were devastated by injuries. He really helped me keep my eye on the bigger picture. He talked to the team and the guys thought that was one of the highlights of our season. (He said) it was not so much the scoreboard, but the heart we were playing with and the pride for our community.
"Dave Bliss deserves a second chance and I’m glad he’s getting it with high school kids."
Shivers built his relationship with Bliss from a Coaches Outreach Ministry, which is a weekly Bible study in San Marcos.
"I had a young team and was really struggling," he recalled. "He calls me at 6 a.m. and gives me encouragement. He talks to our players and they love him. He talks a lot outside of basketball. He just cares enough to give his time."
This spring, some parents approached him about a high school coaching opening at an area public school, but he did not have the necessary license. His wife, Claudia, then jumped in and suggested he try for a private school position which did not require the same license. When he saw an opening at Allen Academy, he saw it as "a perfect match for my skill set and to work with kids. I put on a full-court press from where we live and drove up there four straight days.
"We’ve been around people all of our lives. That’s where we derive our pleasure and energy. She missed it as much as I did. I really feel that’s why God made it available."
Former Baylor president Robert Sloan, now at Houston Baptist, was among those strongly recommending Bliss for his new job. He admitted, "We were shocked and had no indication of all the rules that Dave had violated. I was very happy to recommend Dave, because I believe he is truly sorry for what he had done and has really turned his life around.
"He has established a ministry and really lived a life indicative of his genuine sorrow. I admire him greatly. He has been working with young people and he knows the pressure and temptations. I think Dave now will use the rest of his life to do good and have a faithful Christian witness."
The new head of Allen Academy, John Rouse, said he hired Bliss because of "his level of passion, enthusiasm and sincerity about what he believes is the impact he can have in a positive way on young people. I certainly believe that people can make mistakes and can turn their lives around. Dave Bliss fits in that category. I’m excited for him."
Rouse and Bliss both see this job as much more than a one-year commitment.
"They want me long-term," Bliss said proudly. "This isn’t about Dave Bliss getting back to the limelight, winning 20 games and getting to the state. It’s about kids. God always creates the opportunity of a second chance, but not to further your own star."