Mears meticulous to the end

Nearly two decades ago, former University of Tennessee basketball player Billy Justus received a letter from Ray Mears, the Vols' head coach from 1963-77. The note carefully outlined how Mears' memorial service should be conducted.

Given Mears' zealous attention to detail in all aspects of his life, it isn't too surprising that he planned his death with similar diligence. Justus, hand-picked by his mentor to deliver one of the eulogies, touched on this theme Thursday night as hundreds gathered at Knoxville's West Hills Baptist Church to pay their last respects.

"I've had this letter for 15 or 20 years," Justus said, adding that when Mears penned it "he was still in excellent health."

Mears' life featured gaudy orange blazers, unicycle-riding players juggling basketballs during pre-game warmups, wrestling bears and other zany antics. In death, however, his funeral was a very tasteful and dignified affair ... with a few wisecracks to brighten the mood.

The service began with scripture and opening remarks by sons Mike, Matt and Steve Mears. Matt admitted being uncomfortable speaking in public, then quipped, "but you don't turn Ray Mears down."

Matt later suggested that his strong-willed dad is in heaven trying to convince God to change the color scheme, adding: "I think the next sun rise may be a little more orange."

Alluding to his dad's scripting of his entire funeral, Steve Mears wryly noted that everything would be going as ordered "except Dr. Cameron (the chaplain) drew the line at riding a unicycle out here."

The sons conceded that they got to know their famous father much better AFTER his coaching career ended and he stopped devoting the biggest part of each year to the Vol basketball program.

Justus acknowledged as much. After relating how long Tennessee's practices were, he thanked Mears' wife and children for their patience on behalf of all of the coach's former players.

"We know that during basketball season there were great sacrifices by you," Justus said, addressing Mears' family. "We appreciate you sharing him with us, because we know during that time we had him a lot more than you did."

Justus paused thoughtfully before smugly adding: "And, honestly, a lot of times we wanted to give him back."

The crowd erupted with laughter. Ray Mears would've liked that.

Billy Hann, Justus' backcourt mate in 1967, '68 and '69, was another of Mears' hand-picked eulogists. He, too, touched on the late coach's obsession with order and detail.

"If you were the point guard, before each game Coach Mears would give you an index card with five plays on it," Hann recalled. "You talk about detailed: He would script the first five plays because he believed if we could get off to a good start we would win the game."

UT athletics director Mike Hamilton and head football coach Phillip Fulmer were among those in attendance Thursday night. So were basketball coach Bruce Pearl, his staff and players. Former head basketball coach Don DeVoe and former assistant Gerald Oliver attended, too, along with dozens of Mears' former players. Notable in his absence was ex-Vol Bernard King, who was scheduled to deliver one of the eulogies but had to cancel due to a family illness.

Mears won 278 games and three Southeastern Conference titles during his 15-year run at Tennessee, yet his greatest accomplishment may have been coining the phrase "Big Orange Country." This enabled every fan – UT grad or not – to feel connected to the program.

"For everybody tonight," Justus said, scanning his audience, "that was his gift to you: You are members of Big Orange Country."

Although Mears was meticulous almost to a fault, even he missed a detail occasionally. For instance, three days after receiving the letter outlining plans for the coach's memorial service, Justus says he got a phone call from his former mentor.

"He told me there was one more thing he wanted me to do," Justus recalled. "He said, ‘Tell every one of the guys who played for me that they were special.' "

Moments later, following a touching message by the Reverend Dr. Marvin Cameron and a brief benediction by John Pennington, the American flag was peeled back from the top of the casket.

Then, ever so slowly, the lid was opened to give the world one last look at Ray Mears … resplendent in an orange coat and tie.

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