By Danny Robbins
BRYAN — Dave Bliss’ first season as a high school basketball coach has given him a state championship — and raised new questions about his methods.
Eight years after being caught on tape trying to cover up NCAA rules violations at Baylor by portraying a murdered player as a drug dealer, Bliss again finds himself a subject of controversy even as he works to revive his career as a coach and administrator at a private school with less than 300 students.
This time it’s a governing body for private high school sports that says Bliss is a rule-breaker, and the issues, stemming from an attempt to recruit high-profile transfers, have prompted fresh criticism of the 67-year-old coach.
“The thing most people have taken issue with is the fact that Coach Bliss had such baggage, a school gives him a second opportunity and then, instead of laying low for a few years, he went out and tried to bring in these ringers,” said Jason Jump, who operates a website devoted to private high school sports in Texas.
Bliss was hired last May as coach, athletic director and dean of students at Allen Academy, which serves 250 students in kindergarten through grade 12. The hire put Bliss back in an educational setting for the first time since the scandal at Baylor, and it was widely publicized as his chance for redemption.
Yet, less than six months after taking the job, he was in hot water with the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools, the state’s largest governing body for private high school sports.
The association ruled last November that two of the players Bliss recruited, both of whom were entering their senior years at Houston-area public high schools, received improper inducements because they were allowed to pay only a fraction of Allen Academy’s $10,000 yearly tuition.
It also determined that Bliss forged the signature of the school’s headmaster on a transfer form for another player who later decided not to enroll.
The findings led the association, commonly known as TAPPS, to place Allen Academy on two years’ probation and suspend Bliss for a year.
The school vigorously disputed that it violated the rules, and, rather than comply with the sanctions, moved to another association, the smaller and lesser-known Texas Christian Athletic League.
“TAPPS misunderstood why I came here,” Bliss said during a recent interview. “Their perception was based on what I’d done before. That’s not me now.”
But the association’s top administrator says the matter is one of the messiest his group has ever dealt with.
“You’ve heard the cliche ‘a can of worms?’ This was a can of snakes,” said Edd Burleson, the organization’s longtime director.
Bliss was seeking a position that would allow him to coach high school basketball in Texas when he responded to an Internet job posting by Allen Academy last spring.
Officials at the school, which has operated in this city 100 miles northwest of Houston for more than 100 years, acknowledge that they have been trying to give their athletic program a higher profile. They say Bliss was thoroughly vetted and found to have traits that meshed well with their priorities.
“I felt like he had the right combination of personality and human relations experience to go with his athletic background,” said headmaster John Rouse.
Rouse said that opinion hasn’t changed.
“Things a Division I basketball coach typically wouldn’t do he does in a blink of an eye, because he wants Allen to be a good place for kids,” Rouse said.
Bliss has been admonished by the school for signing Rouse’s name without authorization on the transfer form, but school officials downplay the matter.
“It’s not like he forged his name and cashed a check for $100,000,” said Jerry Bullin, who chairs the school’s board of trustees.
Bliss said he signed the headmaster’s name on the form because he was facing a deadline. There was no intent to deceive, he said.
“I have my scarlet letter, and I understand that,” he said. “The only thing about it is, from this point forward, I am trying to do the right thing.”
But some familiar with Bliss’ efforts at Allen Academy don’t see him as a changed man.
“He’s giving speeches at the Final Four about how he’s seen the light, but he’s still not doing what you’re supposed to do as a Christian,” said Kevin Cross, the coach at Dobie High School in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, where one of the transfers who received discounted tuition previously played.
Within months of Bliss’ arrival, Allen Academy had re-established itself as a boarding school by leasing a block of apartments near the Texas A&M University campus and was attracting players from the Houston area, including several who were well known as college prospects.
The two players whose tuition arrangements were questioned ultimately helped the school complete a 20-12 season by winning the Texas Christian Athletic League’s Class 2A title.
Allen Academy officials say discounted tuition is available to any student who seeks it, and the ability to pay is determined by a third-party company.
Rouse said he believes the TAPPS executive board, which made the ruling, showed itself to be biased against Bliss as well as certain ethnic groups. Both of the players whose tuition was questioned are black.
“My belief is they are a bunch of self-pious individuals out to pass judgment on people,” Rouse said.
Burleson said the board treated Bliss no differently than anyone else.
“They are biased against people who break the rules,” he said.