A small Christian University decides it has had enough of losing. They hire a coach with a “win at all costs” attitude.
They let him recruit unfettered by such niceties as making sure the players fit the moral standard of the University, and lets them in even if they might be “bad dudes.”
When it all falls apart, administrators, boosters and alums do everything than can to minimize the damage – not to the victims but to the University.
This isn’t about former Baylor football coach Art Briles and the sexual assault scandal, although Lord knows it could be.
This is about a horrific incident 12-13 years earlier where a Baylor basketball player lost his life and the University began to lose its credibility.
“Disgraced,” the Showtime documentary on that case, had its world premiere here in Austin at South by Southwest. Texan and Austin-based documentarian Pat Kondelis looks into 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.
It covers much more than the murder mystery. It applies serious doubt about Dotson’s mental competence, legal representation, even guilt.
As one of the most fascinating (and disgusting) documentaries I have seen, it is a must-see. For sports fans it sheds a bright light on the dark under belly of big time collegiate athletics.
At the heart of the documentary is former coach Dave Bliss who is just about the only person on campus at the time who agreed to be interviewed. Simply put, he comes off as a venal, manipulative man who will throw everyone and anyone – including the victim – under the bus to save his skin. What’s even more amazing is during the interview he denies facts that are public record, because it makes him look better to do so.
Bliss brought in three players when he first got on campus. Dennehy transferred from New Mexico and would have to redshirt. Two others were JC transfers, Carlton Dotson, from Paris JC in Texas and Harvey Thomas also from a Junior College. Thomas brought along a cousin, Larry Johnson who was a certifiable “bad dude.”
I’ll let the documentary tell the grim details of the murder and investigation, which ended with Dotson being convicted of murder and sentenced to 35 years after pleading guilty (more on that later).
There is no doubt that the cover up at Baylor began immediately after Dennehy was declared missing on June 19, 2003.
Dennehy had to redshirt the upcoming season, and wasn’t on scholarship. Bliss provided a car, apartment, living expenses and $7,000 in tuition. When the investigation starts Bliss decides he needs a story. He instructs assistants and players alike to paint Dennehy as paying his way by being a drug dealer.
When an assistant coach audiotapes the planning of the cover up and they come out, Bliss is fired.
There isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Patrick Dennehy ever sold drugs. That hasn’t stopped Bliss from keeping to the story that he got the idea from the Baylor internal investigation. Bliss claims they were looking into it because Patrick had flunked drugs tests (tests that were never properly reported to the NCAA). When he believes he is off-camera during the interview he says, “he (Dennehy) was selling drugs. He sold to all the white guys on campus,” Bliss says. “He was the worst.”
Bliss is now the head basketball coach at Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma.
The handling of the Dotson trial is the most damming part of the documentary. Dotson had a history of mental troubles and after the arrest three doctors declared him incompetent to stand trial. Almost two years later he was declared mentally competent.
Grady Irvin Jr., Dotson’s original lawyer, was replaced after Dotson was extradited back to Waco. Russ Hunt and Abel Reyna, both Baylor grads, were now representing him.
John Segrest, McLennan County District attorney at the time, said Hunt and Reyna tried to make a deal.
“This is maybe where I have a memory of people playing the Baylor card…they wanted to plead it out and were willing to take 30 years…this is making Baylor look bad, can’t we just plead and get it over with?”
Segrest pointed out that capital murder cases usually warranted a life sentence, which in Texas is a minimum of 60 years, and he turned down the offer.
“Whatever’s Baylor’s mess is they made and it was not gonna be my problem,” said Segrest
The judge originally set to hear the case goes on vacation and is replaced by a jurist from the Juvenile Courts. The defense lawyers want to change to a plea of guilty and let the judge set sentencing. It was over in less than ten minutes.
The judge (another Baylor grad) never asked Dotson about his mental state. Never asked if he was on psychotropic drugs the day his plea changed, never inquired of his mental health history. Didn’t even ask if he felt good enough to change his plea. During a plea bargain the state is required to read a statement of fact about the allegations. The defense asked that it be waived and the judge agreed. He then set sentencing for one week, which surprised the DA.
“I was…yea I would say I was surprised” said Segrest. “I’ve seen the probation department take six weeks to do a pre-sentencing report on a shoplifting case.”
Irwin, his original lawyer was stunned at the proceedings.
“I think anyone on the outside looking in, has to say oh my gosh he gave up everything, gave up everything, he is not only being put away he is being shut up.” Irwin then added, “People forget courts are designed for public viewing. So we will know that our system of justice is fair. The public got none of that. What the public got in this case was the result that seemed to be…let me be careful how I say this…that some would be happy with. Alumni, boosters, anyone associated with those programs. And anyone who did not want to see their beloved University or program hurt.”
Dotson will be eligible for parole in 2021.
In 2010 Abel Reyna defeated John Segrest in the election for McLennan County D.A.
Dave Bliss finished his first season as head coach at Southwestern Christian University with a 21-13 record.
The final word in the documentary – and here – will go to Grady Irvin Jr.
“Carlton Dotson wasn’t your cancer. He is a byproduct of your cancer. If Baylor University doesn’t at some point in time respond to requests for interviews and answer questions forthright concerning what was going on with that program, the cancer’s always gonna be there. And it will resurface if you don’t get it all. It’ll come back.”