Showtime documentary ‘Disgraced’ resurfaces story of murdered player at Baylor
While head coach Dave Bliss is back on the sideline, former assistant who blew the whistle can’t find a position
“At some point in everybody’s career, you’re going to have to face an ethical question. For me, I drew the line at a dead body.” – Abar Rouse, former Baylor University men’s basketball assistant coach
Fourteen years after the first known case in American college sports of a player murdering his teammate, Abar Rouse is on the phone from Fort Worth, Texas, where he has taught general education in a federal prison for four years, helping incarcerated men earn their GED diplomas.
In Disgraced, a Showtime documentary premiering Friday that details the murder of Patrick Dennehy and subsequent cover-up at Baylor in 2003, Rouse finally gets his due — if you can call never getting another Division I job “his due.”
“Not a sniff. They wouldn’t touch me,” he lamented.
Crazy, no? The man who did the right thing has committed his life to educating men who did the wrong thing. The man who didn’t get a second chance at his dream gig, the one good guy in the most sordid college sports story before Penn State in 2011, earns his living today by helping redeem others who are starving for one more shot.
His blackballing is not about race, Rouse said. It’s about a warped coaching culture that “takes care of its own.”
Because this is the sad truth 14 years after that awful summer: Dave Bliss, a white, 73-year-old basketball lifer who lied about a murdered player, has a coaching job in 2017. And Rouse, a 42-year-old black whistleblower, has yet to be offered a full-time college coaching job anywhere.
Snitches don’t get stitches in college basketball. They just never get callbacks.
Maybe we should go back and start from the beginning:
Dennehy’s decomposed body was found in the high grass of a gravel pit near a creek three miles from campus in Waco, Texas, about a month after he had gone missing in June 2003. He had been shot twice at close range in the temple. His teammate and roommate, Carlton Dotson, eventually confessed to the murder and, on the advice of court-appointed attorneys, pleaded guilty five days before a trial — despite reservations from multiple psychiatrists over whether he was mentally competent to stand trial.
In Disgraced, Austin documentarian Pat Kondelis is thorough and unsparing. Spoiler alert: There are no silver linings or happy endings. The documentary comes no closer to providing a motive than anyone did back then. But through interviews with friends and family members, it unspools the terror both Dennehy and Dotson experienced before the murder.
Mounds of interviews, court documents and evidence point to alleged harassment and stalking by a recent addition to the team, Harvey Thomas, and his cousin, Larry Johnson. Dennehy told coaches, players and his girlfriend that Johnson had pulled a gun on Dotson and him in his apartment.
Bliss never determined the threat to be credible after Thomas denied to him that his cousin even had a gun. Yet, fearful for their lives and after telling coaches and friends that someone had stolen $300 from their apartment, Dennehy and Dotson bought guns and began going out to the gravel pit for target practice.
In the documentary, Thomas denies that he or his cousin threatened either player. But Dennehy’s other roommate says he was home alone one day and believes the man brandishing a gun through the peephole was Thomas.
Dotson, meanwhile, was psychologically disturbed, according to multiple people close to him, leading up to and after the murder. He claimed to be a “prophet of God” and told people he had exorcised a demon from the body of his then-wife, who left him because of abusive and erratic behavior, eventually divorcing him after his guilty plea.
I interviewed Dotson in 2008 for The Washington Post. Along with his stepfather, we sat at a picnic bench inside the Walls Unit prison in Huntsville, Texas, while his mother waited outside the fence. He fidgeted, looked over his shoulder a few times, claiming he acted in self-defense and repeatedly saying, “It had to happen.” He had been transferred to a psychiatric unit a year earlier, and three independent psychiatrists declared him incompetent leading up to the trial.
But the head of the psychiatric unit where Dotson had stayed for four months before his trial declared him mentally competent to stand trial. And that physician ordered him to continue taking his psychotropic drugs.
In the aftermath, it was discovered that Dennehy and another Baylor player were not on scholarship — meaning somehow they came up with $40,000 in tuition. Meaning that Bliss, who’d dodged allegations that players were paid at SMU, one of his previous coaching stops, was about to be found out as a cheater by the NCAA and the university.
At the height of his panic, Bliss is caught on tape telling some of his Baylor players to lie to the local sheriff and the NCAA, to tell them that Dennehy was a dealer who paid his tuition and bought his Chevy Tahoe with drug money. Caught up in his own survival, worried sick he would be found out, Bliss’ words on those tapes, and in a portion of his interviews in Disgraced, are chilling.
“What we have to do here is create the perception that Pat was a dealer,” he tells three of his players, giving Rouse a tape recorder so they could practice before they met with the sheriff and the NCAA. “That could save us.”
Five days after Dennehy’s decomposed body was found and a month after he’d gone missing, Bliss added, “There’s nobody that can say we paid Pat Dennehy, because he’s dead.”
Unbeknownst to Bliss, Rouse had his own microcassette recorder fastened inside his clothing so he would have proof after Bliss had held his job over his head if he didn’t go along with the cover-up.
Explaining his moral dilemma in the moment, he said, “I remember thinking then, ‘If I was willing to do this, what wouldn’t I be willing to do in college basketball to get a player?’ ”
In Disgraced, Bliss tries hard to tell a story of personal accountability and redemption, including at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast, where he hawks his new book and salvation.
Yet, just when the viewer begins to believe in his repentance, Bliss, believing he is off-camera — the filmmakers ironically did what Rouse did to him years earlier — incredibly doubles down on his claim that Dennehy sold drugs.
When he adds, “What I did was, I got in the mud with the pigs. I paid a price and the pigs liked it,” and follows it up with a cackling laugh, the creep factor in the film spikes.
I last spoke to Bliss in 2008 in a conference room at a small hotel outside of Denver, and he had me convinced that he was a changed man. He didn’t return calls to his cellphone and the university for this story.
“Dave Bliss is a crappy human being,” Rouse says now. “To besmirch the memory of Pat 14 years after he was murdered, to call him a drug dealer again when none of his teammates or law enforcement ever corroborated any such thing. …”
But Bliss, who competed against Jim Boeheim in high school in upstate New York and, like Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, is from the Bobby Knight coaching tree at Army, has connections aplenty. It’s why he is again paid to win basketball games and teach life values to young adults between 18 and 22 years old.
Did we mention that after the NCAA slapped a 10-year “show cause” ban on Bliss, NAIA’s Southwestern Christian University, outside Oklahoma City, hired him as men’s basketball coach two years ago?
Rouse’s future coaching prospects, on the other hand, were dead in the water the moment his lawyer let a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter transcribe his recordings. The most soul-crushing moment for him came when Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Kelvin Sampson took part in an Outside the Lines roundtable with host Jeremy Schaap, in which all three go in on the assistant for betraying the sanctity of the coaching fraternity.
Krzyzewski said he could never hire or trust a coach who secretly recorded his head coach. Boeheim and Sampson, whose programs would later be hit with NCAA violations themselves, both said Rouse did the “wrong thing” and that the right thing would have been telling Bliss he refused to go along with his plan.
In a podcast this week with Rouse, Schaap is still blown away that the three coaches defended Bliss and excoriated Rouse. Did we mention Sampson was primarily responsible for separate, three-year NCAA probations at Oklahoma and Indiana, and that he’s the University of Houston’s men’s basketball coach?
“[Sampson] flat-out said I didn’t do the right thing,” Rouse said. “If the murdered person’s name was Sampson instead of Dennehy, I’m quite sure he’d have different feelings about that.”
There is more to be angry about in Disgraced. Dotson was indeed the perpetrator, but on the advice of his attorneys he changed his plea to guilty just five days before the trial, which surprised the prosecution.
John Segrest, the McLennan County district attorney at the time, said he believed the defense attorneys would be formidable in a trial if Dotson pleaded not guilty and claimed he killed Dennehy out of self-defense. Segrest said Abel Reyna and Russ Hunt Jr., Dotson’s attorneys, “played the Baylor card.” “This is making Baylor look bad,” he said, relating what the attorneys had told him. “Can’t we just get it over with?”
They persuaded their client to plead guilty in hopes he would receive the low end of a sentence that ranged from five to 99 years. Dotson got 35 years. He is eligible for parole in 2021.
Rouse pauses over the phone between classes. After Baylor, he got a grad assistant job at Division II Midwestern State for a couple of years, but he couldn’t cut it on the $8,000 stipend. He went broke. Borrowed money from his mother. He finally got a graveyard shift job X-raying airplane parts, then went back to school and began teaching.
He has no regrets, as he couldn’t live with himself if he had been part of a scheme to frame a dead man to save his coach and Baylor’s behinds. He still wants to coach.
He understands about unwritten boundaries, about the disturbing code that brainwashes coaches into believing that being disloyal is worse than what Bliss did to Dennehy and his family.
But Rouse rightly wonders, “How in the hell do you let him be in charge of young men again? You’re telling me he was the best candidate you could find? The conclusion you have to draw is wins are valued over values.”