Mears' memories live on

Former University of Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears died earlier this week, but the colorful memories he left with those of us lucky enough to know him will live on for the rest of our days.

For instance:

Legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp came to be known as "The man in the brown suit." Just for the hell of it, Mears bought a brown suit to wear on a visit to Lexington. Approaching the opposing coach during pre-game warm-ups, Mears literally smirked: "Rupp, I've got my brown suit on." Enraged, Rupp promptly returned to the Big Blue locker room and launched into a chair-kicking, profanity-laced tirade.

By the way, Mears beat Rupp 10 times in 22 meetings.

The legendary Vol coach also annoyed Vanderbilt head man Roy Skinner by routinely showing up at Memorial Gym in a gaudy orange jacket, then slowly sauntering past the student section while being peppered with cusswords and oranges. Skinner complained bitterly about these obvious attempts to incite a riot but to no avail.

By the way, Mears beat Skinner seven times in nine meetings at Memorial Gym.

"I really don't care to go down in the record books as an SOB," Mears once said. "but neither am I going to change my habits just because some people don't approve."

Equal parts combative and flamboyant, Mears' personality did not endear him to opposing coaches or opposing fans. That was by design.

"I approached basketball like it was war," he once told me. "I went into a game as if I was going into battle: There's only one way to come out, and that's alive."

Mears came out alive more often than not. He won 278 games at Tennessee and lost a mere 112, an imposing .713 winning percentage. But those numbers don't scratch the surface of his greatness.

Consider:

Mears' 15-year record in Southeastern Conference road games was 69-59, a .539 winning percentage. That looks awfully good when compared to the numbers compiled by successors Cliff Wettig (2-7, .222), Don DeVoe (35-64, .353), Wade Houston (6-36, .143), Kevin O'Neill (3-21, .125), Jerry Green (15-17, .469), Buzz Peterson (8-24, .250) and Bruce Pearl (8-8, .500).

Mears was at his best in big games, compiling a 9-10 record against opponents who were ranked in the top five and winning his last six in a row. Conversely, Wettig was 0-3 vs. top-five foes, DeVoe 3-14, Houston 2-3, O'Neill 0-6, Green 0-0, Peterson 1-5 and Pearl 2-5.

Thanks to an amazingly sharp mind, Mears regularly managed to frustrate the officials and manipulate the rule book. Once, trailing Florida in the final minute of a game at Gainesville, he called a timeout he didn't have, purposely incurring a technical foul. This gave the Gators one free throw, followed by a jump ball. Florida made the foul shot but Tennessee's 6-foot-10 Bobby Croft got the ensuing tip and the Vols scored a basket.

Mears promptly called another timeout, incurring another technical. The Gators again hit their free throw but Croft again got the tip, setting up another Vol basket. Thanks to several more of these two-for-one swaps, Tennessee forced the game into overtime AND forced the NCAA to hastily close the loophole by altering its technical-foul procedure.

In addition to his coaching prowess, Mears was a master motivator. He once taped a photo of Rupp to the dressing room door at Alumni Gym, then encouraged his players to throw darts at it during preparations for the Kentucky game. Although the Vols upset the Wildcats, the stunt upset UT athletics director Bob Woodruff.

"Woodruff wasn't happy," Mears recalled. "He had to buy a new door. Hell, I thought it was worth a new door to beat Kentucky."

Away from the basketball court, Mears had great respect and fondness for Rupp. In fact, I'm guessing they're in Heaven right now, locked in an animated discussion of the Big Orange-Big Blue basketball rivalry.

And I'm guessing Mears is wearing a brown suit. Just for the hell of it.


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