Mears remembered for coaching, marketing

Tennessee has never had a more intriguing coach than Ray Mears. He had the marketing skills of P.T. Barnum, the coaching skills of Adolph Rupp and the leadership skills to rally his players long after his coaching days ended on The Hill in 1967.

Many of those players rallied Monday, remembering the good old days with Mears patrolling the sideline in a bright Orange blazer, enticing Vanderbilt fans to fire real oranges at him, instructing a player to ride a unicycle, developing drills to the sound of Sweet Georgia Brown and watching one of his players wrestle a bear.

It was all a part of promoting Tennessee basketball.

It was all a part of promoting Big Orange Country.

It was all part of the Ray Mears mystique.

Ray Mears died Monday afternoon in a Knoxville nursing home. He was 80.

His death sent sympathy waves throughout the state of Tennessee.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who had just written Mears a letter, was saddened by the news. Pearl said he was actively trying to get Mears inducted into two basketball hall of fames.

It was Pearl who did his utmost to promote the legacy of Mears. Pearl brought attention to Mears by wearing that gaudy Orange blazer against Vanderbilt and Kentucky. Twice, Pearl was involved with honoring Mears, once to have Mears' name on a banner hanging from the rafters of Thompson-Boling Arena and another time when UT retired the jersey of Bernard King.

Both times, Mears was ushered to midcourt in a wheelchair.

Pearl has often been compared to Mears in terms of his marketing skills and coaching abilities. But not even Pearl could get away with having a player ride a unicycle or parading in front of Commodore fans at Memorial Gym with a body guard like 6-7, 280-pound Bill Skinner.

Mears' marketing was accompanied by the ability to coach the game. He won with a slow-down style in his early years. He won with a fast-paced team in the 1970s, led by Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King.

And he loved concocting schemes.

His target as a team was Kentucky. Tennessee won twice against Kentucky in the 27 years before Mears arrived. Mears went 15-15 against the nation's best basketball program.

His target among players was Pete Maravich, LSU's three-time All-American. Maravich averaged 44.2 points during his stellar college career. He never scored more than 30 against Tennessee. Mears had Billy Hann hawk Maravich and double-teamed the scoring whiz once he passed the ball, denying him a chance to get it back.

Tennessee went 22 years without an SEC championship until Mears delivered in his fifth season. Led by Ron Widby, Billy Justus and Tom Boerwinkle, the Vols supplanted Kentucky with a thrilling 78-76 triple overtime win at Mississippi State.

The team celebrated by shoving everyone into the shower, including basketball sports information director Bud Ford.

Mears had brought Tennessee its first-ever berth in the NCAA Tournament.

John Ward, the long-time Voice of the Vols, said he was too emotional to grant a radio interview about his beloved friend. Ward said Mears transcended basketball. He said Mears made all people – not just Vol alumni or lettermen – feel a part of the Vol Nation by coining the phrase: ``Big Orange Country.''

``That was his primary influence, to make all people in all walks of life feel comfortable with Tennessee,'' Ward said. ``To me, that's his greatest contribution.''

But you can't ignore his marketing. You can't ignore the Orange Tie Club, the orange blazers, the orange influence.

``I always think when a blimp flies over Neyland Stadium and you see the green field surrounded by a sea of orange, that all started back in 1967,'' Ward said.

Mears' marketing ability almost overshadowed his coaching skills. He was 121-23 with a national championship at Wittenberg University before coming to Tennessee. He was 278 games at Tennessee, 74 more than the runner-up. He won three SEC titles in 15 years. He brought the Ernie and Bernie Show to Knoxville. UT had one 20-win season before Mears arrived. Mears produced seven 20-win teams.

He made Tennessee basketball relevant.

Justus, who made All-American under Mears despite playing his entire college career on a football scholarship, marveled at how serious Mears was as a coach, yet how innovative he was as a promoter.

Mears gets credit for installing a 1-3-1 defense, but Justus said Mears was an offensive genius. Dean Smith of North Carolina gets credit for the Four Corners offense, but Mears ran a stall before that.

When he reflects about Mears, Justus was asked if he thinks of a great coach, a great promoter or a positive influence on his life.

``The third one – a positive influence on my life,'' Justus said. ``He molded us into men.''

What greater compliment can you give your coach?

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