Bliss must go forth amid Dennehy disappearance

Chris Turk, roommate of missing Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy, sits in the living room of the apartment he shared with the athlete near campus in Waco, Texas, Friday, July 4, 2003. They had been roommates since last August. Dennehy has been missing for nearly three weeks. His sport utility vehicle was found last week in a mall parking lot in Virginia Beach, Va.

By RANA L. CASH / The Dallas Morning News (7.13.03)

WACO – Baylor's campus buzzes with the activity of nearly 100 aspiring basketball players. The boys, ages 8 to 18 sit cross-legged on the gym floor and stare up at their camp leader. They hang on every word of Dave Bliss, who also happens to be the head coach of a Baylor program surrounded by mystery.

He offers nuggets of encouragement and instruction in his introductory remarks. Minutes later he's gone, on the road pursuing an equally important task – recruiting.

It's a critical NCAA evaluation period, when every coach in the country is scouring elite tournaments such as this weekend's Denton Great American Shoot-out. The window is short – from July 8 to July 17 in this particular stretch. Bliss is scouting talent for the 2004-05 season, and he has three scholarships to give.

He has little time to lose – and he has a tough sell.

Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy has been missing since June 12. Waco police have targeted former teammate Carlton Dotson as a person of interest.

An unidentified informant told Delaware authorities that Mr. Dotson told a cousin he shot Dennehy in the head after an argument in which Dennehy pointed a gun at him, according to court documents. Dotson has not been charged, and his family has said the allegations are unfounded.

It is against this backdrop that Bliss and his staff have begun contacting players with the hope of reassuring them that Baylor is still a viable option. The allure of the Big 12 as perhaps the country's best conference hasn't changed. Neither, many say, has the greatest drawing card Baylor has – that of the country's largest Baptist university, with strong academic standards in a small community.

"There's no doubt that we have been very communicative with our recruits," Bliss said Thursday. "They understand that this is just the unusual situation that we know it is. They continue to be tremendously interested and that is why I feel that we need to get back out, so they can see us. It's not that I'm insensitive to anything else that's going on, but our recruits need to see us. They need to know that we're trying to heal and that we do believe that we can have a good team."

Most recruits do not blame Bliss, one of the nation's winningest coaches. His reputation seems to be intact despite the recent events. Family and friends of Dennehy say that the player informed assistant coaches Doug Ash and Rodney Belcher that Dennehy was being stalked and the coaching staff did nothing about it. Bliss, who acknowledges that Dennehy told them someone had broken into his car and apartment, adamantly denies his staff was told that Dennehy was in any danger.

"As a parent, I feel kind of shaky, but these things can happen to anybody and it can happen at any place," said the Rev. Henry Nelson, a Baptist minister and the father of incoming 6-10 freshman Tyrone Nelson of Hempstead, Texas – a consensus top-100 national recruit. "What has happened may never happen anymore in a lifetime."

Recruits have 'questions'

Bliss has received support from the coaching fraternity as well as recruits.

"You talk about coaches who do it the right way and who care for the kids," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said, "that's Dave Bliss. He's at the top of the charts."

But will Baylor be the top choice for players?

Kevin Rogers is a 6-8 power forward from South Oak Cliff. Set to begin his junior season, Rogers is already piling up letters from Baylor, UCLA, Kansas State and many others. He is at least a year away from making a commitment to any institution. In the meantime, he said, he will ponder Baylor as long as the school remains interested in him.

"When I heard about it, it was kind of scary," Rogers said. "I didn't know if it was the way they were running their program. Was it the players, or just that one player? Was he uncomfortable? I'd ask a lot of questions. A lot."

At least one area high school basketball scout believes that Baylor has a tough road ahead now. Stretched out along University Parks Drive is evidence of the school's commitment to building its academic and athletic muscle. The Baylor 2012 program includes bolstering its athletic facilities. A new tennis center and a stunning baseball park stand out among the ongoing construction projects. At the very end of the road is Baylor basketball's Ferrell Center. The question now is, who will come?

"Until everything is cleared up, there's a pretty good chance that it's going to be difficult for Baylor to recruit," said Greg Swaim, who runs a recruiting service that bears his name and hosts basketball showcases. "The one thing that Baylor has had to sell is that it is a great private, academic institution. They can say, 'You'll be safe here.' That whole image is gone, for right or for wrong."

Fellow recruiting expert Mike Kunstadt, a former high school coach who now runs, disagrees.

"The character Coach Bliss has, he has always done things at the highest level," he said. "In my opinion, kids go to school because of the coaches. The coach hasn't done anything wrong. His character will speak for him."

Even before this, it has not been easy getting premier high school talent to Baylor. The year before Bliss arrived in 1999, Baylor was winless – 0-16 – in Big 12 games. The men's team hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament in 15 years. Last season, Baylor was 14-14, and the Bears are 61-57 overall under Bliss. In Big 12 play, the Bears are 19-45, including 5-11 last season.

That's why recruiting is so important. According to one recruiting service, about a dozen players are being recruited by Baylor.

Five transfers on roster

On the 2003-04 roster, there are five transfer students, including Dennehy. Baylor is recruiting to replace this year's seniors – guard Matt Sayman, forward Terrance Thomas and center R.T. Guinn. Baylor has the maximum of 13 players on scholarship for the upcoming season.

Bliss' focus during this 10-day period is evaluating high school talent – on and off the court. That job grows tougher. The NCAA has drastically reduced the amount of time college coaches can spend getting to know their recruits. And during the season, coaches can spend no more than 20 hours of a week with their teams.

With the restrictions on all programs, Baylor coaches won't have much time to sell themselves to potential recruits. They'll have to rely on their reputation. That might be good enough.

"My plans haven't changed at all," said Ryan Pryor, a junior and invited walk-on from North Lake College in Dallas and McNeil High School in Round Rock. "Baylor is a top-of-the-line program with a top-of-the-line coaching staff. They are good people, and it's a strong atmosphere."

Jazzy Hartwell, a summer league coach in Oak Cliff at the Moorland YMCA, has had many future college players come through his program, including former SMU standout Jeryl Sasser and current Baylor player Terrance Thomas. Rogers, the SOC junior-to-be, is now under Hartwell's tutelage.

"I went to school in Waco at Paul Quinn," Hartwell said. "Baylor is a great school. You can't judge them by that incident. Life has to move on and you have to look above that."

Kimball coach Royce Johnson has worked at Baylor basketball camps. He said he hopes the program isn't negatively impacted.

"That's not what the program is about," Johnson said. "I've known Coach Bliss since I was 7-years-old, when he was at SMU. He's always been good. The thing about him is that he has always been a player's coach."

Time will reveal the ramifications.

Bliss, who has coached at SMU, Oklahoma and New Mexico, can only hope the focus will be on the positives.

"We are returning to recruiting," Bliss said. "The reason we need to return to recruiting is our recruits need to see us. They're wondering, just as our team wonders: Where do we go from here, Coach? We've been in touch with all our players, whether it's in Houston or Dallas or Buffalo, New York, or wherever they are and tell them that we don't know much of what's going on at all.

"All we know is that we want to stay together. We want to keep thinking positively and we want to prepare as much as we can."

Staff Writers Keith Whitmire and Calvin Watkins contributed to this story.

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