Dave Bliss assumed control of Baylor Men’s Basketball in 1999, hoping to rebuild the program back to national relevancy. Bliss’ first major victory came on February 12, 2001 when the Bears upset the No. 6 Kansas Jayhawks at home on ESPN’s Big Monday. Less than a month later the Bears, now a No. 9 seed in the Big 12 Tournament, upset top-seeded Iowa State (ranked No. 7 in nationally) in a 62-49 shellacking. The victory came in large part due to an immense defensive effort on the part of the Bears, shutting down All-American Jamaal Tinsley and forcing him to foul out in 26 minutes. According the Baylor Media Almanac, Doug Tucker of the Associated Press said of the Bears’ defeat of the Cyclones, “I can’t remember a more shocking loss.”
The Bears may have been riding high, but they had to settle for an NIT appearance. That said, Bliss was able to lead this team to its first postseason birth in 11 years. In the end, however, Baylor fell to New Mexico in the first-round of the tournament.
The resurgence of good times for the program did not last long, however, as the biggest scandal in not only Baylor history, but, some would say, all of NCAA athletics was on the horizon.
Following his sophomore season with the University of New Mexico in 2001-02, Patrick Dennehy, a forward, transferred to Baylor to play for Coach Bliss. Two summers later on June 25, 2003 Dennehy’s car was found in Virginia Beach, Virginia with its license plates removes. This discovery was the first real piece of evidence in the search for Dennehy, who had disappeared earlier in the month.
Following a party in which neither Dennehy nor his teammate Carlton Dotson showed up to, Dennehy’s roommate came home to discover that his dog had not been fed. This fact, combined with concern from Dennehy’s family, who had not heard from him for days, prompted a search for Patrick Dennehy. On June 30, five days after his car was discovered in an entirely different state, a court unsealed an affidavit filed on June 23, which, in addition to seeking a search warrant, claims that someone in Delaware had told the police that Dotson had admitted to shooting Dennehy during an argument at a Waco-area gun-range. Dotson was officially charged with the murder of Patrick Dennehy on July 21, 2003; the death was officially ruled a homicide on July 30, four days after Dennehy’s body was found on the outskirts of Waco. Dotson pled guilty to the murder of his former teammate on June 8, 2005 and was sentenced to 35 years in prison, which he is currently serving. Dennehy is now buried in San Jose, California.
The murder of Patrick Dennehy is the first known case of one teammate killing another in NCAA history, but it only set the stage for an NCAA investigation into the program. In August of 2003, Baylor President Robert Sloan appointed a panel to investigate whether Coach Bliss had committed any NCAA violations. The panel returned with the news that Bliss had paid all of Patrick Dennehy’s and Corey Herring’s tuitions, having reached his limit on official team scholarships. Bliss then flew up to New York, where he attempted to convince Herring’s mother to lie about paying the tuition herself. The Herring family still claims to have had no knowledge of the situation and says that they were all under the impression that Herring was under scholarship while at Baylor. Following this unsuccessful persuasion attempt, Bliss pretended to be Herring’s father and called Baylor’s financial aid office to obtain any information on what the NCAA may use against him.
The scholarship situation, however, was the least of Bliss’ problems at the time. Reports emerged from Dotson’s estranged wife and the mother of another team member that the team suffered from rampant abuse of marijuana and alcohol, all of which was known and ignored by the coaching staff. This drug-use led Bliss to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer during the August investigation in order to explain how Dennehy paid for his tuition without the athletics scholarship. Bliss openly talked about this plan to paint Dennehy in a bad light with his assistant coaches. Abar Rouse, an assistant coach under Bliss, secretly recorded his head coach’s staff meeting where Bliss made known his plan to persuade the public of Dennehy’s drug-related actions and this recording became a crucial piece of evidence in the case against Bliss.
As the investigation proceeded, more and more violations emerged. In early August it was discovered that several members of the coaching staff attended a pickup game involving then-recruit Harvey Thomas during his official visit. According to NCAA rules, coaches are not allowed to observe any recruit’s athletic activities whilst on a visit. In addition, a previous NCAA investigation, only released during the August investigation, revealed that Bliss had taken booster payments for center Jon Koncak while coaching for SMU, resulting in his resignation from SMU in the late 1980s.
While Bliss maintained that he followed the rules during his time as head coach of Baylor Basketball, he eventually did admit to paying for part of Dennehy’s tuition and ignoring the results of several drug tests. On August 8, 2003 President Sloan forced Dave Bliss to resign as head coach and the investigation panel imposed preliminary sanction on the program, including two years’ probation and no postseason play for the 2003-04 season (to include the Big 12 Tournament).
The investigation and subsequent findings resulted in the immediate release of any players who wished to leave the program. This ended with Lawrence Roberts, John Lucas III, Kenny Taylor, and Tyrone Nelson transferring, with Roberts and Lucas helping their new teams win conference championships and with the latter leading Oklahoma State to the Final Four.
While this period of Baylor Basketball is certainly the darkest in its long history, the brightest period was just around the corner, as a youthful and energetic man was about to step in and rebuild the Bears from scratch.
Note: several articles have been written on this scandal and what precedes is a short summary of the main events.
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