HOUSTON -- He is at once Baylor’s biggest fan and biggest pariah, the man who perhaps more desperately than anyone wants the Bears to succeed and the man that the school can’t distance itself from enough.
Since 2003, you can’t say the word Baylor without thinking of Dave Bliss. His heinous and cowardly act goes down as the most egregious in college coaching circles. Attempting to cover up his own payment to players, he tried to convince his team members to paint Patrick Dennehy, murdered by his own teammate, as a drug dealer.
But as the Bears prepare for their first Sweet 16 game in school history, a Friday date with Cinderella Saint Mary’s, Baylor finally is rewriting its own history.
Watching intently but from afar, no one is happier with the Bears’ success than the man who took the program to the brink of extinction.
“If I thought that my indiscretion, my mistake would have ruined this program forever, that would crush me,’’ Bliss said. “You have to understand as much shame as I have for what I allowed to happen, I went to Baylor to do what they are doing right now. I couldn’t be happier.’’
Bliss now lives in Austin, just a short three-hour ride from the South Regional in Houston.
Babysitting duty for his granddaughter will keep him out of town on Friday. Still stuck in the old coaching mentality that holds fast to its beliefs in jinxes and superstitions, he won’t even entertain a question as to what he might do if Baylor should beat the Gaels.
But he admits to being no shrinking violet, perhaps to his own detriment, and said given the chance he would like to sit in the stands and watch Baylor try for the Final Four.
“I think I would be comfortable,’’ he said. “But I don’t want to make anyone else uncomfortable. I would love a chance to go because you have to remember, I love Baylor. I would love a chance to do anything and everything that is appropriate, but the last thing I want to be is a distraction.’’
In an NCAA tournament field full of Cinderellas and teams on redemptive missions, there is perhaps no more striking rebirth than Baylor’s. When Scott Drew took over, the program was in shambles and the fan base distraught and humiliated.
Under unbearable scrutiny and labeled with the most staining of scarlet letters, the Bears were decimated by NCAA penalties (technically they are still on probation until June of this year).
Few thought Baylor, never really much of a player in college basketball, would be relevant again.
Instead Drew won 15 games by his fourth season and led the Bears to their first NCAA bid in 20 years two seasons ago.
This year Baylor finished third in a stacked Big 12 and now stands as one of the last two representatives for the league.
“We were in New Orleans [for the first round], so we were relating to the Saints,’’ Drew said. “They’ve had some tough years and I know their team was really excited when they were able to give their fans a lot to cheer for and that’s how we feel.’’
Bliss is trying to walk his own redemptive path, knowing full well that there are cynics and skeptics who will never believe in what he’s doing.
He runs a program called Gameplan Ministries, reaching out to area high school coaches about the temptations and pratfalls that led him to such monstrously bad decisions. He has given talks about character and integrity, offering himself as the result when character and integrity take a bath.
“I don’t think every coach has it in him to do bad, but I didn’t think I had it in me,’’ Bliss said. “It’s like a dark side comes over you and it’s almost surreal. I can’t change what happened. I can’t ever change it, but now I can be the guy coming at you with the blinking headlights on to let you know what’s over the hill. I know because I’ve seen it.’’
Baylor fans, understandably, would rank among the most skeptical and least forgiving when it comes to Bliss. They long for a day when his name isn’t constantly dredged up amidst their successes.
It could be close.
Two more wins and the Bears are in the Final Four.
Two more wins and just maybe Bliss is permanently in the rear-view window.
“I understand everything, every feeling that people have for me. I deserve them all,’’ Bliss aid. “I don’t know if it will ever be over. I’ve come to grips with the fact that every year about this time I’m going to get phone calls. And I’ll answer them all. That’s the least I can do.’’