Mears, UT legend, dies

The Barnum of Basketball is dead. Ray Mears, who won more games and influenced more people than any coach in University of Tennessee basketball history, died at 1:15 today in Knoxville's NHC Health Care Center. He was 80.

Due to declining health, Mears spent his final years wheelchair-bound – a shadow of the fiery figure who paced the sidelines, blistering officials and outwitting opposing coaches during his illustrious 15-year stint with the Vols.

Although he remains to this day the winningest coach in Vol basketball history, Mears is best remembered for his showmanship and gamesmanship. He coined the phrase "Big Orange Country." He jazzed up Tennessee's pre-game warm-ups by convincing Roger Peltz to ride a unicycle as "Sweet Georgia Brown" blared on the public address system. He signed Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, creating the "Ernie and Bernie Show" that produced the Golden Age of UT hoops.

Born Nov. 8, 1926 in Dover, Ohio, Mears coached the Vols from 1963-77. His record of 278-112 represents an imposing .713 winning percentage. His win total ranks eighth all-time among Southeastern Conference coaches and his winning percentage ranks seventh. Counting his stint at Wittenberg (Ohio), Mears went 399-135 for a .747 winning percentage that ranks 17th in NCAA history.

Assuming a program that had gone 4-19 the year before, Mears posted a 13-11 record in 1962-63. After a 16-8 season in Year 2, he went 20-5 in Year 3, including a 12-4 SEC mark.

Tennessee went on to claim three conference titles during Mears' 15-year tenure, with seven 20-win seasons and three NCAA Tournament appearances. Mears even managed to break even with powerful Kentucky, going 15-15 against the Big Blue.

The regard in which Mears was held is apparent in the following comments about him which accompanied the university news release announcing Mears' passing:

Ernie Grunfeld, former UT player (1973-77)

"I had the privilege to play for Coach Mears at the University of Tennessee. He was a very important part of my life and he will be greatly missed. I learned some great lessons from Coach. He was a great leader, innovator and an extremely competitive person. He taught me about hard work, dedication and loyalty — lessons that have stayed with me my whole life. His attention to detail was unmatched. He encouraged us to not only be good basketball players but also to be good human beings. I will never forget the four great years I had playing for Coach Mears in Knoxville. I want to extend my deepest condolences to Coach Mears's family, as well as all Big Orange supporters."

UT Director of Athletics Mike Hamilton

"Coach Mears was a true Tennessee legend. He created a tradition of basketball success, pageantry, and fan support by which all future basketball teams and coaches will be measured. When speaking with fans of Coach Mears or one of his former players, everyone has a Stokely story or a memory of his great showmanship. He made a difference, he made an impression and he had great vision. He will be missed."

Head Coach Bruce Pearl

"Coach Mears was one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. He brought a style of play and atmosphere to Tennessee basketball that always will be treasured. I feel very fortunate to have met him and to have spent time with him over the past few years. I know how truly excited he was about the resurgence of Tennessee basketball. I am glad that we were able to honor Coach Mears and John Ward last season and retire Bernard King's jersey this season because their names will hang in the rafters forever."

Former Voice of the Vols John Ward

"Perhaps more than any other person, Ray Mears made it comfortable for everyone to be a Tennessee fan by his marketing ideas. That made UT athletics inclusive rather than exclusive. Anyone could be a citizen of Big Orange Country. Ray Mears' ideas made sidewalk alumni feel at home just as a much as a graduate with four degrees. That was his strength."

Former Tennessee Basketball Coach Don DeVoe

"Ray Mears was a giant in the basketball coaching profession. He took Tennessee to heights that had never been experienced before. More importantly, he was a giant of a man and he will be missed by the basketball profession. I was the coach who replaced him but the support he showed me during that time of transition meant a great deal to me. He was always looking for the positive things for Tennessee basketball and how we could improve."

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