In the most recent installment in his Coaching Greats interview series, CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with former New Mexico head coach Dave Bliss. Coach Bliss led the Lobos to seven NCAA Tournament appearances during his time in Albuquerque. While many still remember his tumultuous tenure at Baylor for the way in which it ended, Coach Bliss is now the dean of students (as well as head basketball coach and AD) at Allen Academy in Texas.
Jon Teitel: You were an All-Ivy guard at Cornell, captain of the baseball team, and were later inducted into the school's Hall of Fame. Which sport did you enjoy more, and which one were you better at?
Dave Bliss: Although I coach basketball I grew up in an era where baseball was more popular. I was a better baseball player, but I played on a better basketball team at Cornell. We kept finishing second to Princeton each year because they had future Hall of Famer Bill Bradley. I follow baseball more now. I have been to Yankees spring training and enjoy going to minor league games.
JT: In 1967 you began your coaching career as an assistant at Army under Bob Knight, and later rejoined him at Indian during the early 1970s. What was it like to work for Coach Knight, and what made him such a great coach?
DB: He was like an older brother. When I joined the Army in the late 1960s they sent me to West Point where Knight was the coach, and I was so enamored with the way he coached basketball. This was during the dividing period between the old days when coaches just had a whistle and the new era of coaches with a more businesslike approach (recruiting, more intense work ethic, etc.). My first job was with Procter and Gamble, but after meeting Knight I knew that I wanted to become a basketball coach. The reason we put together the 1976 title team at Indiana was because there were few recruiting rules at that time, so we were on the road all summer watching kids around the country. Other schools did not start recruiting until school started, so our head start allowed us to get the best players from various nearby states: Scott May from Ohio, Quinn Buckner from Illinois, etc. I always tell young coaches that I wish I could share two things with them: coaching under Knight and coaching in The Pit at New Mexico. I thought that we should have won every game we coached in The Pit, because we really did have a home-court advantage with 17,000+ fans. It was an economically-depressed area, so when people paid money to attend the games, they were very loyal to the Lobos.
JT: What are your memories of the 1979 NCAA Tournament, when you were head coach at Oklahoma (John McCullough set a school postseason record with 11 assists in a win over Texas, but the Sooners lost to eventual national runner-up Indiana State thanks to 29 points from Larry Bird)?
DB: The irony is that I had signed Bird to come to Indiana a few years before that. There were two letters of intent back then. I signed him to a Big Ten letter of intent (so no other Big Ten school could get him after that point), and Bob signed him to the national letter of intent (beating out Louisville). I got to know Bird pretty well through recruiting him and he always wanted to play well against me. My center got five fouls and Bird got none in that game, so you could tell it was just not our night. You will never find a coach who did not love Bird. Texas was coached by Abe Lemons and the game was at SMU, so it was a great marketing thing to have those two rivals playing each other so close to home. We had a great crowd for that game, and it ended up making me want to go to SMU later on, which I did.
JT: What are your memories of the 1984 NCAA Tournament, when you were head coach at SMU (Jon Koncak had 32 points in a win over Miami (OH), but Patrick Ewing had a tip-in in the final minute of a one-point win by eventual champion Georgetown)?
DB: We were way out in Pullman, WA, which took us 11 days to get there (including part of it by dog sled!). Ron Harper was Miami's great player back then, but the Georgetown game was our coming-out party. Koncak was not the most athletic guy, but he matched up pretty well against Ewing due to his size. We were ahead at halftime, but they started pressing us in the second half in order to get back into the game. The Georgetown guys would shave their heads before games and walk into the gym and try to scare the opposition, but my Dallas guys were not scared of anyone. Ewing had not been lined up along the free throw line the whole game, but he did at the end and Koncak should have blocked him out. It was a tough loss, but we were feeling that we had a good chance to get back there next season.
JT: What are your memories of the 1985 NCAA Tournament (Larry Davis had 17 points in a win over Old Dominion, but Carl Golston scored 20 points in a win by Loyola (IL))?
DB: We were looking for a rematch against Georgetown, who we would have played in the Sweet 16, but that meant that we were looking past Loyola and they just beat us.
JT: What are your memories of the 1988 NCAA Tournament (Kato Armstrong scored 29 points in a win over Notre Dame, but Kevin Strickland scored 31 points in a win by Duke)?
DB: That was in the Dean Dome against Digger Phelps on St. Patrick's Day, so the Irish players were dressed up like leprechauns. When Digger does broadcasts today he will still say, "I do not know who is going to be the Kato Armstrong this year" because he remembers how well Kato played against David Rivers. If we had a good big man, we just might have beaten Duke that year. Digger and I both used to be assistants in the Ivy League so I knew him really well. After the game he told me that I could come up to his room and he would give me all his stuff on Duke. When I got there it looked like a war room: he had lots of charts on Duke spread out everywhere. However, he did not appear to have anything on us, so perhaps he was just preparing for Duke the whole time. Digger might have been even more of a CEO than Knight.
JT: An NCAA investigation during the mid-1980s reported that you were involved in illegal payments to players including 1985 lottery pick Koncak, but the NCAA chose not to pursue the investigation due to the football program having received the "death penalty". Is this true, and how do you feel about the incident?
DB: Koncak recently got inducted into the SMU Hall of Fame, which would never have happened if he was guilty of taking payments. He did as much for our team as anyone, although he would occasionally embellish things. I am unaware of anything illegal, and I think he straightened everything out with SMU.
JT: What are your memories of the 1994 NCAA Tournament, when you were coach at New Mexico (a three-point loss to Virginia after the Lobos led for the first 39 minutes)?
DB: They had a better team than us, with guys like Junior Burrough and Curtis Staples. We had a little guard named Greg Brown who won the Naismith Award and was also WAC POY. At crucial parts of the game Greg would get body checked. In the WAC he would have gone to the free throw line, but they called it a little looser in the tourney. That game kind of went the way I thought it would go.
JT: What are your memories of the 1996 NCAA Tournament (Clayton Shields scored 25 points in a win over Kansas State [the first tournament win for the school in over two decades], but Allen Iverson scored 25 points in a 10-point win by Georgetown)?
DB: That was the year that the rules changed dramatically in regard to palming the ball. Iverson was so dramatic with the way he palmed the ball, just like Andy Pettitte and his pickoff move.
JT: What are your memories of the 1997 NCAA Tournament (Kenny Thomas had 15 points in a four-points win over Old Dominion, but David Gibson missed a lay-up with seven seconds left in a one-point win by Louisville)?
DB: That was the time we really missed the boat on getting to the Sweet 16. I thought we had a better team than Louisville that year. The game came down to the last play, so we ran a play that we had run all year but it did not work; it was very frustrating to lose. My best memory is that we were in the same regional as Coppin State with Fang Mitchell, who had a great upset over #2-seed South Carolina. I was coming down on the elevator the day of our first game, and I saw the Coppin State players bringing down all of their possessions. They were checking out of the hotel before heading to the South Carolina game, as they were going to head back to campus after the game if they lost. Their bus looked like the car in the Beverly Hillbillies, with smoke coming out and stuff tied down with rope. After they pulled off the upset, they turned around and checked right back into the hotel because they still had another game left to play two days later!
JT: What are your memories of the 1998 NCAA Tournament in Rupp Arena (Lamont Long scored 22 points in a win over Butler, but Todd Burgan had 20 points and 10 rebounds in a 10-point win by Syracuse)?
DB: That was probably our best team at New Mexico. In an inconsequential game at TCU one month earlier, Royce Olney tore up his knee and changed the entire dynamic of our team because he was such a great three-point shooter (51.3 3PT%). After he got injured, people started playing zone against us because we could not make as many three-point shots. I played against Jim Boeheim in college, so I got to watch his zone get better and better over time. They also had a good shot blocker named Etan Thomas who caused a lot of problems for us inside.
JT: What are your memories of the 1999 NCAA Tournament (Long had 17 points, 12 rebounds and the game-winning jumper with five seconds left in a two-point win over Missouri, but Richard Hamilton had 21 points in a win by eventual champ Connecticut)?
DB: That was Norm Stewart's last game at Missouri. The Tigers had the ball with 30 seconds left and made a basket to go up by one. Lamont held for the last shot and made an off-balance jumper to give us the win. It never happened to me before in a game, but we went all the way to the SECOND TV timeout without having scored against CT. Fortunately, we were only down 11-0, and eventually tied it up, but they pulled away in the second half. I think we were nervous for some reason: maybe we knew how good they were.
JT: In 1999 you were named coach at Baylor, but resigned in 2003 following internal and NCAA investigations into the circumstances surrounding the murder of Baylor player Patrick Dennehy by former player Carlton Dotson. How did this event change your life, and what is your biggest regret about the whole situation?
DB: I was tremendously humiliated and ashamed of what happened at Baylor, as I let my competitive drive get the better of me. My violation was for paying the scholarships of the two players. That was the year that the NCAA went from 13 scholarships to 11, and I am the poster child for why they are not going to ever do that again. I was worried about not having enough players due to academics, but all of a sudden the guys with bad grades got their academics in order, so I tried to get them loans through the normal channels. I was unable to do so, which is why I ended up paying for the scholarships. That was bad, but as usual the cover-up is worse than the act itself. I try to share that by talking with people, but I refuse to have a pity party. What I did to Baylor and my friends and family have caused me much remorse. I believe that God takes care of other people, so you just have to take care of yourself and get back to doing what you do best, which is what I am doing now by coaching kids.
JT: In May you were named dean of students/boys basketball coach/athletic director at Allen Academy, the oldest private school in Texas. What are your goals for the upcoming season, and what kind of reaction have you received from the community so far?
DB: We are trying to take a good academic situation and put some good athletics with it. The reaction has been great for the most part: there have been a few naysayers, but that is just part of coaching. I look back on my own education at Cornell and am so grateful for it. I feel that coaching is a ministry rather than a job. I just want to give my players good life skills and encourage them to guard their hearts and take precautions.
JT: When people look back on your career, how do you want to be remembered the most?
DB: I used to want to be remembered as the best coach at every school I ever worked at, but my legacy is different now. God made me to coach, so I just have the chance to influence young people through coaching.
Coach Bliss is also on Jon's list of best coaches in Mountain West history.
Air Force: Bob Spear (1957-1971) 165-166, 2 NCAA tourneys
BYU: Stan Watts (1949-1972) 371-254, 7 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 2 NIT titles
Colorado State: Jim Williams (1954-1980) 352-293, 4 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
New Mexico: Dave Bliss (1988-1999) 246-108, 7 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title, 2-time conference COY
San Diego State: Steve Fisher (1999-present) 198-149, 3 NCAA tourneys, 1 conference title
TCU: Billy Tubbs (1994-2002) 156-95, 1 NCAA tourney, 1 conference title, 1-time conference COY
UNLV: Jerry Tarkanian (1973-1992) 509-105, 12 NCAA tourneys, 12 conference titles, 1 NCAA title, 1-time national COY, 8-time conference COY
Utah: Rick Majerus (1989-2004) 323-95, 11 NCAA tourneys, 10 conference titles, 1-time national COY, 4-time conference COY
Wyoming: Everett Shelton (1939-1959) 328-201, 8 NCAA tourneys, 8 conference titles, 1 NCAA title