Disgraced ex-Baylor coach Bliss thankful for new opportunity
BETHANY, Okla. (AP) Dave Bliss wasn't planning on returning to college basketball.
The controversial coach resigned at Baylor in 2003 following a major scandal and was working as athletic director and basketball coach at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas. He led the private prep school to the Class 2A Texas Christian Athletic League state championship in each of his five years.
A chance meeting with Southwestern Christian officials at a tournament last month started an unlikely string of conversations that led to the 71-year-old Bliss being announced Wednesday as the head coach of the NAIA program.
''This came out of the blue, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity,'' Bliss said Wednesday. ''I know it's going to be difficult for some people to look at me as a viable candidate.''
That's because he wasn't involved in just any scandal.
In 2003, Baylor player Patrick Dennehy was found shot to death after he had been missing for six weeks. Former teammate Carlton Dotson pleaded guilty to murder, and the ensuing investigation uncovered NCAA violations, illegal tuition payments and unreported failed drug tests on Bliss' watch, leading him to resign. Bliss also was secretly recorded by an assistant coach as he tried to persuade others to cover up his misdeeds by portraying Dennehy as a drug dealer.
Bliss wishes he could move on from the Baylor situation, yet it is part of what changed him from a man focused on all the perks he could get out of big-time coaching into one focused on serving others.
Before stepping forward, he had to forgive himself.
''I wasn't helping anybody by wallowing in my pity, and at no time did I ever think that I was betrayed or anything,'' he said. ''The thing that I wanted to do is make reparation. You don't do that by sitting still.''
Bliss has won more than 500 games in 28 years in stops at Oklahoma, SMU, New Mexico and Baylor. His teams have qualified for the NCAA Tournament 10 times.
Now, he's back in the state where he became Oklahoma's head coach at age 31 back in 1975. His wife is from Oklahoma and his first child was born in Norman.
''I married a Boomer Sooner, and she wanted to come back to Oklahoma,'' he said. ''A lot of her friends are back here. It's hard to believe that 40 years have gone by so fast.''
He replaces Quinn Wooldridge, who left to take coach Oklahoma Baptist. Southwestern athletic director Mark Arthur said he was shocked when Bliss became a serious candidate.
''My first reaction was, `Why is he going to come to Southwestern Christian University?'
Then, Arthur listened.
''When I heard his heart, and heard that it's not about the big arenas, it's about the kids, I understood why he was interested,'' Arthur said. ''I just thought it would be a great story of him starting in college, making that complete 360 and ending his career in college.''
Arthur said he has heard more positive responses than negative since the hire.
''There's a risk with anybody you take,'' he said. ''I honestly feel like Dave has received the grace of God. He knows he's made mistakes, he's admitted his mistakes, and we're willing to take the chance with him.''
Bliss wasn't sure at times whether he deserved grace.
''I think that's innate in man, especially in performance-driven people,'' he said. ''All my life, I strive for something. To realize that grace, the greatest thing that's out there, is free is difficult for a man to accept. I felt badly about all the people that I put in difficult positions. So yes, I felt like I wasn't deserving. But then, you realize what Easter Sunday is all about, and it changes everything. To not accept grace is to be the most arrogant.''
Bliss said he's in it for the long haul - he joked that he wants to coach longer than Arthur, who led the hoops program for 20 years before becoming full-time athletic director.
The Eagles went 8-20 last season, but Bliss calls the school a ''diamond in the rough.'' He said already getting calls from all over the country about possible recruits, and he's excited about the chance to turn things around.
He certainly isn't in it for the money - he joked that he has a shoe contract with Payless.
''This guy's not the same Dave Bliss that did some of the things that happened in the past, and he can be of value to us and to the students of Southwestern Christian University,'' Arthur said.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP .