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Past, present haunt Dave Bliss at Las Vegas charter school

The NIAA decided Wednesday that it wasn’t ready to welcome Dave Bliss.

The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association was scheduled to consider the American Preparatory Academy’s request for two-year probationary status as a way to be granted full membership. That motion was tabled indefinitely because of concerns about the school and the basketball program led by Bliss, the controversial former major college coach and the subject of the Showtime documentary “Disgraced.”

Rollins Stallworth, Washoe County executive athletic director and NIAA board vice president, said the NIAA wanted to “get some more information and gather more data about the school.”

The motion can only be brought back for consideration by an NIAA board member.

Bliss resigned his position as basketball coach at Southwestern Christian University in Oklahoma City in 2017 upon the release of “Disgraced,” which included his disparaging remarks made in 2003 about murdered Baylor University player Patrick Dennehy.

The film played recordings of Bliss fabricating a tale that Dennehy was a drug dealer as a way to conceal that Bliss secretly paid for the player’s tuition while coaching at Baylor because he was out of scholarships. Bliss, now 75, ultimately received 10 years of NCAA probation in the wake of the Baylor scandal and hasn’t coached at the major-college level again.

And yet several months after administrators at APA viewed the film, the K-12 charter school in Clark County hired Bliss — making it the second school in Southern Nevada to hire him in the past 18 months. He had served as basketball coach and athletic director at Calvary Chapel for one year.

“That person in the documentary was 15 to 18 years ago,” APA secondary director Nik Hulet said in January of the decision to name Bliss athletic director and basketball coach last summer. “We all change. We’re going to be a school that talks about character and growth and second chances.”

‘I think I can help’

The NIAA oversees Nevada’s high school activities, and only member programs can compete for state championships.

“Our players have goals of trying to be in college,” Bliss said last month, “and I think I can help them a little bit based on my experience.”

Bliss has avoided talking in depth about his time at Baylor. He said there will be a time and place to discuss it.

But parents and administrators were doing plenty of talking in the months prior to Wednesday’s meeting, openly questioning whether Bliss plays by the rules. APA was forced to forfeit two basketball games at the middle school level this season for using a high school player and another player without eligibility.

“There is no way we want American Prep anywhere near our league with the stuff going on over there,” said Bill Darrow, athletic director at Needles High School and president of the Class 2A Southern League of high schools — the NIAA’s fourth-largest level by enrollment — prior to the meeting. “I question the integrity with Bliss at the helm. It’s alarming to me and the league. You have kids coming in and out of nowhere. … We can’t compete with that at our level. We will fight this, 100 percent.”

In an interview with the Review-Journal earlier this year, Bliss said his high school program is clean.

“I don’t know what’s ahead of us,” Bliss said. “The thing I really respect about APA is its academics and character development. For an older coach, all I’m trying to do is give them an athletic program no matter what the sport is, where we can keep our athletes where they are because we’ve got a terrific thing going.”

Conflicting messages

Bliss’ predecessor, Darrell Larsen, was hired by APA in June 2017 as athletic director. He had won state championships as a coach in basketball and track at Pine View High School in St. George, Utah, where he worked for 20 years.

“At first, the message at APA was to build (athletics) the right way with whatever kids happened to be at the school, so we started a basketball team,” Larsen said. “But that message eventually changed. (Hulet) said he wanted to compete with the Findlay Preps and Bishop Gormans in basketball. They knew the kind of person Dave Bliss was, but got frustrated that kids were leaving after the eighth grade for high schools with more established sports programs.”

Larsen said he was informed by APA via email that his contract would not be renewed after the 2017-18 school year.

Rachelle Hulet, APA’s district administrative director and Nik Hulet’s sister-in-law, said the school was not created to be an athletic-focused powerhouse.

“I opened this school in large part for my five children to have a better (educational) option,” she said. “I also see the benefit of kids playing sports and those lessons that are learned through it. But at the end of the day, if there is a choice between the two, this is going to be about our academic program.”

Even so, the school had a need that Bliss filled.

inline-regDave Bliss coaches his team American Preparatory as they play Findlay Prep in Henderson, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Caroline Brehman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Dave Bliss brought us an organized plan on how to run an athletics program, and we needed an organized plan,” she said.

APA’s varsity finished 19-7 this season and won the Nevada Charter School Sports Association championship. Among the team’s top players was former Cheyenne High standout KeShawn Hall, who didn’t arrive at APA until mid-January. He initially had tried to transfer to another school, but when he learned he would not be able to join the basketball team there, he opted to join Bliss’ team.

“(Bliss) has been nothing but great for my son,” said Willie Hall, KeShawn’s father.

There’s also the curious case of APA’s best player, 6-foot-8-inch Darren Jones.

Jones, a senior, has committed to play football at the University of Utah. He departed Cajon High School in San Bernardino, California, after the first semester of his senior year. His time in California, according to the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, took him to three different high schools before he arrived at APA.

According to the Rancho Cucamonga newspaper, Bliss claimed that Jones was being home-schooled in Las Vegas.

However, when asked in January by the Review-Journal if Jones was enrolled at the school, Nik and Rachelle Hulet said that he was.

Nevertheless, Jones was a no-show the week APA won its charter school title. Bliss told the Review-Journal via text that “(Jones) enrolled and tried it for a month, and then his football people convinced him they could help him more, so he withdrew. But he was legit when he was here.”

Jones, who played in nine games for APA, did not reply to a request for comment through his social media page.

Middle school violations

What was not legitimate: APA used ineligible players in two middle school games.

On both occasions, Bliss sent emails acknowledging his mistake.

In one case, an APA high school freshman who played Class 4A varsity football played in the game against K-8 charter school Pinecrest St. Rose. The boy has since left APA.

In his email to Pinecrest, Bliss said: “Several of our players were involved in another school activity, and we waited as long as we could for the players to arrive. When they did not show up, the coach then inserted another player so as to be able to play the game.”

However, a video of the game taken by a Pinecrest parent and obtained by the Review-Journal showed that APA had uniformed players on its bench. A letter from a Pinecrest parent concerning the incident, sent to selected charter principals and board members overseeing league sports, stated that Bliss was asked about the player in question before the game and responded: “He’s in eighth grade.” Moments later, the letter stated, Bliss told the parent that the boy played football.

In his email after the game against Pinecrest, Bliss wrote: “We will make every attempt to notify all our coaches regarding this issue so that this does not happen again.”

Three days later, it did.

APA’s middle school team played Doral Academy-Cactus. On the floor for APA was one of the top youth players in the valley. A source who spoke with the Review-Journal on the condition that they not be identified confirmed that the player was not enrolled at APA and already had played six semesters at a Clark County School District middle school, making him ineligible for the game.

In an email regarding the Doral forfeit, Bliss said: “We have no excuse, and the league is already aware of the incident. In addition, the coach who committed the violation has been removed.” APA declined to identify the coach but confirmed that he was suspended and not fired. The Review-Journal’s attempts to identify and reach the coach for comment were unsuccessful.

“Do I want to win every game we play? Absolutely,” Nik Hulet said. “Do I want people thinking we’re here doing something nefarious? Absolutely not. I don’t want people thinking we’re standing up here talking about character and morality and at the same time back-dooring kids into school.”

For Eric Bauman, whose son plays on the Pinecrest team, the situation is as shameful as the behavior revealed in “Disgraced.”

“How he is allowed to be in charge of an athletic program at any level after what happened (at Baylor) is incredible,” he said.

Reporter Bartt Davis contributed to this story. Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com. Follow @edgraney on Twitter. Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter. Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @adamhillLVRJ on Twitter.

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