A letter to Coach Dave Bliss, my ragamuffin friend
Coach Dave Bliss,
I’m not sure when I started calling you “Coach.” It just kind of happened. I suppose it’s fitting since that’s what you are—from your assistant coaching days under Bob Knight at West Point and Indiana; to your head coaching days at Oklahoma, SMU, New Mexico and Baylor; and even now as the athletic director at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas.
You’re a coach. And you have 500 NCAA victories to prove it.
But I also think I started calling you “Coach” because of how you’ve coached me. As I reflect on my week-long visit with you in Texas in October, I find it remarkable how a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old kid can connect so well. You’re old enough to be my grandfather, but I feel like we were in the same fraternity. I suppose that’s the way it should be in the body of Christ.
I wanted to write you a letter because I know how much you like letters. As we spent hours sifting through boxes upon boxes of 36 years worth of your dust-covered coaching memories, I saw plenty of letters. Many were written to you after the scandal unfolded at Baylor in 2003 and the NCAA slapped you with a 10-year coaching ban, one of the harshest penalties in college basketball history.
I believe you saved the letters because of how much they meant to you. They breathed life into you. They kept you afloat when your career and everything you had built in three respected decades of coaching came tumbling down. You were broken over your sin—how you illegally paid for two scholarships out of your own pocket and an unrelated murder between two of your players brought your deception to the surface—and you fled from Waco, Texas, to Denver, Colo., trying to escape from all you had done.
Each letter of encouragement you received in Denver, whether it was from Baylor president Robert Sloan or Bob Knight’s ghostwriter Bob Hammel, was much more than a letter. It was a droplet of grace, a sealed, stamped envelope with a reminder of God’s love inside.
I’ve told you this before, but the only difference between your sins and mine are that my sins aren’t all over SportsCenter. I believe we’ve all looked in the mirror and didn’t like the person staring back at us. And sometimes that causes us to do crazy things, like buy nice clothes or puke in the toilet or read the Bible more, thinking we can do something to fix it—when really, all along, God is just asking us to open the envelope He has individually addressed to each one of us and remove a letter that reads, “I love you more than you can ever imagine.”
One of my favorite parts of my week with you in Texas was sitting in your house each evening and quoting passages from Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. To quote Manning, I think a letter from God may read something like this, “I love you just as you are, not as you should be.”
I had a blast with you in Texas, whether it was golfing at Miramont Country Club or sitting in on an A&M basketball practice at Reed Arena or watching Johnny Manziel torch Vanderbilt in football at Kyle Field. But I think it was talking with you about God’s grace and Ragamuffin Gospel over dinner in the evening that I enjoyed the most. It was wrestling with God’s grace that I enjoyed the most.
As you drove me back to the Austin airport, I caught myself gazing out the window, marveling at the gigantic Texas sky. It seemed to get bigger and bigger the more I looked at it. It reminded me of a quote you told me throughout the week, “What you focus on expands.”
I wonder if grace is like the Texas sky. The more you marvel at it, the more you grasp its immensity. Coach Bliss, you have helped me consider that the purpose of life may be about one thing, one profound yet simple thing: Experiencing and enjoying God’s love. Focusing on it. Swimming in it. Watching it expand. What a freeing, simple revelation when we realize there are no “spiritual cosmetics” we need to apply for Him to love us.
The night you took me back to the airport, I couldn’t find a hotel in Austin. Longing for adventure, I ended up taking a shuttle downtown to Sixth Street on Halloween and spending the night on the floor of the Austin airport. On the bus ride back to the terminal, I met a recovering heroine and cocaine addict named Ernest who used to be a pimp in San Antonio and had gone to prison for theft. I immediately liked Ernest. He was broken like me. He was broken like us.
Ernest and I ended up chatting at the airport for the next three hours—about Jesus, life, and what it’s like to be a pimp in San Antonio. At one point, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me his bruised forearm where he shot up for years upon years, where he got a dragon tattoo to hide the shame from future employers.
Ernest told me he sometimes looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Who am I?” Then he asked me the question, “Who are you?” I paused, told him I had been thinking about that same thing, then said to him, “I am loved.”
Coach Bliss, thank you for helping me realize that. You have coached me in grace. Your friendship is just another reminder of those three simple words God wants to ink on our identity, to replace our bruises of sin and scandals with a different scandal, the scandal of grace.
I look forward to focusing on this reality of grace more and more with you. Most of all, I think I look forward to watching it expand.
Sincerely, Your Ragamuffin Friend
By Stephen Copeland
A version of this article was published in Sports Spectrum Magazine.