Baylor University is in the middle of a scandal involving allegations of sexual assaults by students, including members of the football team, but it’s an earlier scandal — one that includes murder — that is getting a prime-time showcase in a Showtime documentary at 8 p.m. Friday.
“Disgraced,” which had its world premiere at South by Southwest in Austin this month, focuses on the 2003 killing of basketball player Patrick Dennehy by teammate Carlton Dotson, who confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
However, “Disgraced” raises questions about Dotson’s guilt, mental competence and legal representation. In doing so, it also casts a shadow on the head basketball coach at the time, Dave Bliss, and the wider Baylor community, about who knew what when and may have been involved in a cover-up.
It reopens a Pandora’s box of charges regarding illicit gifts, such as cars and scholarships, given to players and the accusation that Bliss tried to paint Dennehy as a drug dealer to deflect the hot glare of the media spotlight from himself. Bliss resigned from Baylor in 2003 over questions related to the case and was banned from the NCAA for a decade.
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For Houston-born, Austin-based documentarian Pat Kondelis, 36, who was going to school at the University of North Texas in Denton at the time of the murder, it was a chance to dig into an incident he’d long known the rough outlines of but wasn’t clear on the details.
He was approached by his producers, one of whom had been a Baylor student in 2003, about looking into it and, at first, wasn’t sure if there was much there beyond the tragic headlines. But then he combed through witness statements and police reports.
“My eyes almost popped out of my head,” he said in a phone interview. “I said, ‘OK, there’s a whole hell of a lot more to this story than I knew previously.’ ”
Bliss doubles down
His biggest stumbling block was getting people to talk. Kondelis says that no one from Baylor, including current Baylor Bears basketball coach Scott Drew, would agree to his requests for interviews.
When contacted for this story, the media communications department issued a statement: “Baylor University officials were not provided a copy of the film in advance; thus we are not in a position to comment. It is important to restate that events depicted in this documentary occurred in 2003. Current men’s basketball coach Scott Drew arrived shortly thereafter and has rebuilt Baylor into one of the country’s top programs in accordance with our institutional mission and values.”
Yet, perhaps surprisingly, Bliss — now the coach at Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Okla. — did agree to be filmed. Kondelis speculates that the fact that Bliss had a book coming out, the memoir “Fall to Grace: The Climb, Collapse, and Comeback of Coach Dave Bliss” (2015), may have had something to do with it.
Clearly, some of the things he laid out in his book, there’s a different version of events and how it affected him personally and his family. … I think Dave was very interested in a comeback tour.
Filmmarker Pat Kondelis on his interview with Dave Bliss
“I read the book right away and was kind of taken by it,” Kondelis said. “He admits some things in the book and seems to show some remorse.
“I just called Dave and we had a conversation. I basically laid it out to him that, look, I haven’t heard your perspective on what happened. Clearly, some of the things he laid out in his book, there’s a different version of events and how it affected him personally and his family. I was interested in that. … I think Dave was very interested in a comeback tour.”
But the Bliss with whom he had talked was not the one who showed up to film.
“He was not forthcoming at all,” Kondelis said. “The first thing I get into, he just backpedals immediately and gets super defensive. His body language changes and he just starts denying things that he’s already admitted to — like paying for [Dennehy’s car]. I was shocked. That’s not what I was expecting at all.”
While the Waco police in “Disgraced” say there’s no evidence to support Bliss’ contention that Dennehy sold drugs, Bliss doubles down on his claim. “[Dennehy] was selling drugs. He sold to all the white guys on campus,” Bliss says. “He was the worst.”
He reiterated that belief to the Houston Chronicle in an interview two weeks ago.
Bliss says he got the idea about Dennehy selling drugs from a Baylor investigative committee and that he used that information to try to save his job.
“He failed numerous drug tests,” Bliss told the Chronicle. “I let his parents know when he failed those tests. Things escalated from there. All I did was repeat what players told me. I stand by what I said.”
During this part of the film, Bliss gets up from his chair as if he’s going to leave and says, “You’ll never be able to use this.” But he continues to talk.
“I’m a little disappointed that [Kondelis] used it,” Bliss continued in the Chronicle. “But the reality is the truth. Now the real story is out there. Everybody thought that I made it up. When I agreed to speak for the documentary, I did so because I thought the story had been misrepresented for all these years. I feel badly that the whole thing occurred, and it was reprehensible, but everything I shared is the truth.”
The other side
Offering a different view are former assistant coach Abar Rouse, whose secret tape-recordings of his conversations with Bliss incriminated the coach in a cover-up, and former Star-Telegram investigative reporter Danny Robbins, who broke the scandal in the media. They provide counterpoints to Bliss, defending Dennehy’s character.
“If Abar had not recorded [those conversations] and then given those tapes to Danny, this would be a dramatically different story than how this unfolded,” Kondelis said. “I don’t know if anyone would have gotten any kind of serious discipline. Dave would have probably gotten a slap on the wrist, maybe a year probation or something like that. I think this all would have gone away.”
While Kondelis says “Disgraced” was received well by the nearly sold-out audience at South by Southwest and has received generally positive coverage from the likes of The Daily Beast and Texas Monthly, he doesn’t know how Bliss feels about it.
“I haven’t talked to him since he has seen it,” Kondelis said. “We discussed things prior. I explained to him that there are going to be some things that I know he would not like in the film and that would be difficult. But I told him I’m proud of the film. I stand by everything that’s in it.”
- 8 p.m. Friday