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February 18, 2019

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Calvary Chapel’s hire of Dave Bliss strikes too close to home for local basketball lifer

Friend of murder victim Patrick Dennehy speaks out against former Baylor coach

Reggie Williams

Mikayla Whitmore

Reggie Williams is shown at Lone Mountain Park in northwest Las Vegas, Friday, Aug. 4, 2017.

Reggie Williams cried his eyes out earlier this year watching “Disgraced," the Showtime documentary chronicling the murder of his friend and Baylor University basketball player Patrick Dennehy in 2003 and the ensuing fallout.

The only comfort the local 39-year-old found came from the film’s aftermath. Former Baylor coach Dave Bliss resigned from his coaching position at Southwest Christian University after “Disgraced” caught him in a damning moment when he believed the cameras weren’t running.

Bliss described Dennehy as a drug dealer despite secretly recorded tapes from 2003 revealing the coach concocting the story in an attempt to escape NCAA sanction, and no evidence to support the claim.

Williams figured, for once and for all, Bliss’ lack of remorse would prevent him from ever coaching again. Imagine Williams’ surprise Thursday when his morning coffee was interrupted by a notification from Yahoo! Sports that Bliss had not only landed another job, but one in Las Vegas at Calvary Chapel Christian School.

“I’m completely dumbfounded,” Williams said. “I’ll coach Calvary Chapel for free to stop this man.”

Click to enlarge photo

New Mexico's Patrick Dennehy hangs from the rim after a dunk against UNLV on Thursday, March 7, 2002, during the Mountain West Conference men's basketball tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Williams and Dennehy were both high school basketball standouts in the San Francisco Bay Area and met through AAU tournaments and practices when they were teenagers. Dennehy helped introduce Williams to his now ex-wife.

Williams was able to live out a dream Dennehy was denied in playing basketball professionally, bouncing around leagues overseas for several years in the early 2000s. He settled in Las Vegas in 2005 when a coaching job at the then-new Tarkanian Basketball Academy brought him to town.

Williams takes pride in being a part of the tight-knit Las Vegas basketball community that helped foster major strides for the sport locally. In addition to annually hosting major events like the NBA Summer League and the premier AAU tournaments, Las Vegas has drawn top professionals for offseason training and produced several current NBA players.

“This has become a hotbed for basketball,” Williams said, “and I can’t wrap my brain around (Bliss) being a part of it.”

Calvary Christian did not respond to multiple phone calls, but the school acknowledged Bliss’ appointment as high school basketball coach and athletic director with a Facebook post promoting his camp that ran from Monday to Thursday. Comments on the post were disabled.

“With it being a faith-based, religious school, how much does winning really matter to you?” Williams asked. “What message are you sending your kids? It really must be winning at all costs.”

With a career Division I coaching record of 526-328 including 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, Bliss has won at every stop. But he’s also left almost every job amid scandal.

None was as infamous as the incident at Baylor. Investigators discovered Dennehy wasn’t on scholarship after his death.

Bliss had paid for Dennehy’s tuition, apartment and car. In an attempt to cover up the violations, Bliss instructed assistants and players to portray Dennehy as a drug dealer.

Director of Basketball Operations Abar Rouse covertly recorded the conversations.

“There’s nobody right now who can say we paid Pat Dennehy, because he’s dead,” Bliss said on one of the tapes.

Click to enlarge photo

Reggie Williams holds a letter from Patrick James Denny's memorial service.

Bliss was eventually caught and resigned from Baylor, with the NCAA handing down a 10-year show-cause penalty. He demonstrated a reaffirmation of his faith, speaking at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function and sharing a desire to end his career at a Christian school, and outwardly expressed repentance on “Disgraced.”

“I had allowed the world of competitive athletics to take me to a place that was so dark and devious that I tried to wake up from the nightmare, but it just wasn’t meant to be,” Bliss said on the documentary.

The value of those sentiments, however, was ultimately minimized with Bliss continuing to deny portions of what was proven in the investigation and besmirching Dennehy when he thought he wasn’t being recorded.

“He was selling drugs,” Bliss said. “He sold to all the white guys on campus. He was the worst.”

Williams said his jaw hit the floor in utter disbelief when he heard Bliss stick to the drug-dealing story. Dennehy’s family and friends adamantly disputed those accounts from the beginning, and felt vindicated when law enforcement corroborated that they were false.

Bliss’ persistence opened old wounds.

“Pat was a pretty boy,” Williams laughed. “If he wasn’t in the gym, he was changing something. He always had a fresh haircut, fresh look, parting his eyebrows. He was a good kid.”

One of the last times Williams saw Dennehy was the summer he transferred from New Mexico to Baylor. Bliss had originally recruited Dennehy to New Mexico before leaving to take the Baylor job.

Dennehy had spent one year with the Lobos under Fran Fraschilla, but told Williams he was excited about reuniting with Bliss because he preferred his coaching style.

“Fran Fraschilla is a hard ass and Pat is not that type,” Williams said. “You don’t have to coddle him but you couldn’t scream at him all the time, so that was really the main reason he ended up going to Baylor.”

To Williams, Bliss failed in his obligation to look after Dennehy even before the murder.

Dennehy told friends and family that he felt threatened by teammate Harvey Thomas and his cousin Larry Johnson, and they urged him to share his concerns with Bliss. Rouse said the coaching staff was aware of the situation, but Bliss denied it was brought to his attention.

Less than a couple of weeks later, Dennehy was shot to death. Teammate Carlton Dotson confessed to the murder.

Fourteen years later, it all still feels surreal to Williams. He said the angriest he had ever been was when he encountered Thomas at a tryout for the Chinese Basketball Association a few years after Dennehy’s murder.

That was until he heard about Calvary Chapel hiring Bliss.

“I want it to be known that this really happened: It’s not just a story, not just a documentary,” Williams said. “This man can do anything he wants in life, work anywhere he wants but he shouldn’t be on a basketball court.

“His story hasn’t changed. There’s no remorse. I’m all for people having second chances and things like that, but he doesn’t think he did anything wrong still from what you gather from the documentary.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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