Rupp, Mears had most impact on SEC

The SEC has had a wealth of outstanding men's basketball coaches. Within the last 15 years, Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith at Kentucky, Nolan Richardson at Arkansas and Billy Donovan at Florida have won national championships. Wimp Sanderson at Alabama, Dale Brown at LSU, Norm Sloan at Florida and Don DeVoe at Tennessee had big-time success.

But only two men had a major impact on the SEC: Adolph Rupp at Kentucky and Ray Mears at Tennessee.

That's the opinion of another outstanding SEC coach – Hugh Durham, who took two teams (Georgia and Florida State) to the Final Four.

Durham said Rupp and Mears separate themselves from other SEC coaches for separate reasons.

Rupp won five national championships, 13 SEC tournament titles and 875 games – third most all-time in men's hoops – from 1937-72. He raised the level of play in the SEC.

Mears was Mr. Promotion. He brought unicycles and orange blazers and Big Orange Country to Knoxville - and excitement.

Rupp led Kentucky to dominance in the early 1940s until he retired in 1972.

``Basically his philosophy was, `We're going to have a basketball program at the University of Kentucky and we're going to win, and if you don't want to compete, we're gonna beat you. And we're not only going to beat you, we're going to beat you big time.' And they did that,'' Durham said.

Rupp forced other SEC teams to take hoops seriously or be embarrassed.

Mears brought a different aspect.

``Nobody had promoted basketball in the Southeast,'' Durham said. ``Kentucky got publicity because they won so big. But nobody really promoted their team. I say `team' because I actually believe coach Mears started using the word `program' before anyone in the Southeast.

``Basically his footprint was, `We're going to promote our program and we're gonna bury you with promotion. And if you don't step up, Tennessee is going to be dominant.'''

Mears wasn't as successful as Rupp, but he was the most successful coach in Tennessee history and the second-most successful SEC coach during his tenure (1962-77). Although Mears never won an NCAA Tournament game – the field was limited during his career, hurting his chances – he won the SEC three times and finished second eight times. He won 20 games seven times. In 15 seasons, he went 278-112, 74 more wins than runner-up Don DeVoe.

Mears was effective with a 1-3-1 zone. Rupp didn't like playing a zone, but when he witnessed the success Mears was having, he used a zone as well.

``He never admitted using a zone,'' Durham said of Rupp. ``He came up with some triple syllable word for it, but it was a 1-3-1 zone.''

Interestingly, when Durham was an assistant at FSU, he tried to get a job as an assistant at Tennessee under Mears. Mears hired 5-foot-5 Stu Aberdeen instead.

``He didn't want to hire anyone taller than him,'' Durham joked of Mears.

Durham, now athletic director at Jacksonville State, is the only coach in NCAA history to record the most wins at three different schools (FSU, Georgia, Jacksonville). He took Georgia to the 1983 Final Four the year after all-time leading scorer Dominique Wilkins turned pro.

``A lot of people wrote the reason we were able to come together as a team is because Dominique had gone early,'' Durham said. ``I never looked at it that way. Dominique was a good player. He was also a good person.

``Dominique, I'm sure, never saw a shot he didn't like. But man, he played hard. I can tell you one thing: Usually if players on a team like you, you're a pretty good guy, and our team liked Dominique.''

Georgia lost in the Final Four to North Carolina State, which upset Houston in one of the most improbable national championship outcomes in history.

Although Durham and DeVoe had their disputes when they coached against each other in the SEC, each holds the other in high regard now.

Durham tells the story of how DeVoe had the job at Virginia Tech and declined to sign an extension because the Ohio State job was open. DeVoe, a former Ohio State player, wanted to return to Columbus if offered the chance.

So, Virginia Tech fired DeVoe, who didn't get the Ohio State job, wound up at Wyoming, then eventually was hired at Tennessee.

``He had enough integrity that he didn't want to sign the extension at Virginia Tech, then leave (if Ohio State offered him the job),'' Durham said. ``Then Virginia Tech bailed out on him. I always thought that was a really positive move on Don's part. A lot of coaches wouldn't do that.''

Durham, one of the funniest coaches you'll ever hear speak, related two stories when he was coaching at Georgia.

Georgia was trailing Purdue in Madison Square Garden. A Bulldog got the ball at the top of the key and dribbled and dribbled until the clock expired.

``I said, `Why didn't you shoot it?' He said, `Coach, I didn't want to take a bad shot.' How you gonna take a bad shot when there's no time left and you're down one?''

Another time, Georgia was ahead of Kentucky by two in the final seconds. Rather than run out the clock, the same player challenged 7-foot-1 Sam Bowie, who blocked the shot, leading to a game-tying basket by Kentucky, which went on to win in overtime.

``I say to the player, `Why in the world would you take that shot?' And he says, `Coach, God told me to take it.' I said, `No he didn't cause God knows basketball.'"


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