Echoes From Stokely

For the better part of two decades Tennessee basketball fans have awaited the second coming of Ray Mears, the man who put UT on the college hardwood map and took the program to its historic heyday in the erstwhile Ernie and Bernie Era.

Part P.T. Barnum, part R.R. Neyland, Mears built his success on defensive intensity, offensive efficiency and impressive adaptability. He still ranks No. 14 on the career victory percentage list at .747 with 399 wins and 135 defeats. That puts him ahead of such current coaching notables as Bob Huggins, Jim Boeheim, Mike Kryzewszki, Rick Pitino, Rick Majerus, John Chaney and Bobby Knight and in front of such legendary coaching greats as Al McGuire, Phog Allen and Lou Carnesseca.

Mears came from little Wittenberg College in Ohio and held court on the Hill from 1962 to 1977. He took Tennessee to its first NCAA Tournament in 1967 at a time when only the SEC champion qualified for the 24-team field. And he led the Vols to a third-place finish in the NIT two years later. That was an achievement when only 48 teams qualified for post season play and it still stands as the highest finish by a Tennessee men's team in a national tournament.

Moreover, he inherited a Tennessee team that finished 4-19 and last in the 12-team SEC and led it a 13-11 mark and seventh place finish the next season. He followed with conference finishes of No. 2 No. 2, No. 3, No. 1, No. 2, No. 2, No. 5, No. 2, No. 1, No. 2, No. 2, No. 3, No. 2 and No. 1. The worst record Mears had during that remarkable run was 15-9 in 1972-73 and that team knocked off No. 1 ranked South Carolina to start the season and beat Kentucky en route to a 13-5 slate in the conference.

Mears was a master motivator, who was notorious for taking slow strolls in front of SEC road crowds while wearing his trademark orange blazer. It's debatable whether the crowd or his coat was louder but the visiting Vols always got the message and consistently answered the challenge. Over his last five seasons at Tennessee, the Vols went 8-2 (4-1 in Lexington) while winning five straight against Kentucky to become the bane of Big Blue basketball.

Mears was an innovator who developed the OER (Offense Efficiency Rating) that was based on points produced per possession and gave a precise reading on how well his team protected, rebounded and shot the basketball on the offensive end. Under Mears the Vols took a very deliberate approach with a balanced offense that forced opponents to work hard and foul often.

On the defensive end Mears perfected the flexible 1-3-1 zone which could either extend the court and trap the ball, or easily collapse into a compact 2-3 alignment. He devised a specific defense to stop Pete Maravich and held the NCAA all-time scoring leader to his two lowest point totals ever.

His conservative approach during games seemed in direct contrast to his flamboyant Harlem Globetrotter inspired pregame warm-up that featured a unicycle rider and passing fancies. But when Mears finally acquired the type of talent that could win an up-tempo contest he turned them loose with the critically acclaimed and ultra successful Ernie and Bernie Show.

Tennessee fans flocked to see these sensational stars and terrific teams as a seat in Stokely Athletics Center became the toughest ticket in the state. It was a time when packed houses routinely gave standing ovations during player introductions, when deafening dins roared in anticipation of a Big Orange basket and erupted in a crescendo of applause as the rock ripped the cords. Those were the days when chants of defense delivered spirited stands and dramatic steals. It was a time when Tennessee was the most dreaded road trip in the SEC. The echoes from those long ago days grow fainter with the passing of the years and unless you're at least 35 you probably can't recall them at all.

Such is the state of Tennessee basketball.

The early Don Devoe years produced success through strong man-to-man defense, superb tactics and excellent chemistry but never equaled the heights or excitement of Ray Mears' remarkable reign on Rocky Top. The move to Thompson-Boling Arena coincided with a dip in recruiting and a decline in attendance. The last 20 years have offered little reprieve although Jerry Green had a successful albeit inconsistent four-year run with Kevin O'Neill's recruits.

Now in the midst of another mediocre campaign in which the head coach's job is in jeopardy, Vol fans can only wonder — what comes next? For sure there will never be another Ray Mears to work his kinetic magic, but if the Vols can find a composite of their last six head coaches there might eventually be a remedy to their to troubles.

In other words: The Vols need a coach with Peterson's affability and pedigree. They need a teacher like DeVoe, a recruiter like O'Neill and a promoter like Mears. They need Houston's son and Green's timing.


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