Friday, November 11, 2011

"Coaches Live for the Applause"

In following college basketball and football over the past 30 years scandal's have become commonplace.  However, picking out the most egregious was actually quite easy, until this week.   Yes, there have been point shaving scandals, recruiting scandals, and criminal behaviors by players, but not one school or incident can compare to what Baylor University's program went through -- until now.  

Dave Bliss's record and background prior to becoming the Baylor University basketball coach was impressive.  He had received his undergraduate degree and MBA from Cornell University and after graduating was enshrined into the Cornell University Hall of Fame.  He also gained membership in the prestigious Sphinx Head Society, which cites Cornell students for strength of character and dedication to leadership.  His first coaching break came when he became an assistant to legendary Bobby Knight at the United States Military Academy.   During three years at Army, Knight, with Bliss as his assistant and Mike Kryszewski as his point guard for the 1968 and 1969 seasons, Army put together the three best years of basketball in Army history, going 60-21 and finishing third in the NIT during the 1969-70 season and playing in the NIT in 1968 and 1969.  They were a successful trio who seemed destined for greater things and the greater good of the game.

Like Kryzewski, Bliss revered his mentor Bobby Knight.  This week, Kryzewski will likely pass Knight as the all time winningest coach in college basketball history.  Joe Paterno holds this distiction in college football.  Like Kryzewski, Bliss believed and preached Knight's way saying Knight was "the best there is."  Bliss named his first son Robert in honor of Knight.  

Ultimately, Knight was ousted by future NCAA President Miles Brand while coaching at Indiana.  This didn't happen to Joe Paterno at Penn State because in 2004 then President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley tried to force Paterno out.   He wouldn't let them.  His revered status had made him bigger than them, bigger than the insitution at which he coached.   Ultimately, the applause he was receiving was so great that he had a sense of entitlement.      

And it didn't happen to Dave Bliss until it was too late.
Bliss compiled a record of 465-271 during head coaching stops at Oklahoma, New Mexico and SMU.  Taking his Baylor record into account, Bliss's overall record was 526-368, only 276 wins shy of Knight.   Had Bliss continued winning at his previous rate he likely would have been mentioned in the same breath as Kryzewski and Knight.  

Bliss was hired as the Baylor University basketball coach in 1999, believing that his previous successful coaching stints would be the foundation and background that could lead the Baptist University to better results than his predecessor, Harry Miller's 56-87 previous five year record. 

What followed was as disasterous a period as any basketball program has ever gone through. 

On June 14 of 2003, Baylor forward Patrick Dennehey was shot and killed by fellow Baylor Bear player Carlton Dotson.     The subsequent investigation revealed that Dotson and Dennehey had obtained guns and that Dotson had shot and killed Dennehey.  The investigation also revealed that Bliss attempted to to persuade assistant coaches and players to depict Dennehy as a drug dealer who used drug money to help pay his tuition.   Baylor's own investigation of the incident found that Bliss payed the tuition of two players (Dennehy was one), a drug-test coverup and assorted examples of players receiving "extra benefits" from Bliss and his staff.   The school also was cited for "lack of institutional control."   Both Bliss and Athletic Director Tom Stanton resigned on August 8, 2003. 

Bliss, stated, "I messed up and I hurt a lot of people. I mean, I really messed up."  Bliss himself stated that coaching at Baylor was more challenging than other programs and this led to his egregious behavior.

"When you don't coach at the great schools, you have to work harder and explore every opportunity to survive and improve. And a lot of that means (working in) gray areas, areas that aren't illegal but haven't been traversed very often.  You try to create different advantages - not cheating, but pretty soon the gray area goes to the illegal area. And that's what happened to me."

Joe Paterno's situation comes to the forefront.  Like Mike Kryzewski and Bobby Knight, Paterno was regarded as "the best there was."   Yet, Paterno's path is all too similar to Dave Bliss's (Yet, don't forget, Bliss was on the same winning pace as Kryzewski and Paterno).  A coverup, a failure to face truth, a failure to be honest.   Up until last week Paterno was the Mike Kryzewski of college football -- above the fray, above the scandals and cheating, yet still the most successful. 

What does it say about Mike Kryzewski, who like Dave Bliss was mentored by Bobby Knight and accordingly should have a similar character makeup.   What makes Mike Kryzewski so much more special than Dave Bliss and now Joe Paterno that one could be the "best there was" while the others are branded as bringing out the "worst there is."   Widely portrayed after the Baylor scandal as representing all that is insidious in sports, Bliss said he "started to analyze how I had changed, how I had gotten ambitious, how prideful I was, how I felt entitled."

Are there questions we don't want to ask about Mike Kryzewski, if he was faced with a nearly impossible rebuilding challenge or similar ethical dilemma as Joe Paterno or Dave Bliss would he too look to work "in the grey area" does he feel this same sense of entitlement as Bliss and Paterno must have felt.

Somehow, I can't help but think that all of these men share the same resolve, the same competitiveness - a refusal to lose,  a refusal to be branded as anything short "perfect" in the public eye.  The sense of entitlement that Dave Bliss speaks of above.   Had Joe Paterno done the right thing ten years ago his program would have been less revered.  It would have put a black eye on it.  This is something that none of these men want nor will they accept it and ultimately, it results in actions that aren't always right.        

"Coaches live for the applause," Dave Bliss said years later.

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