Pearl praises Mears

Former University of Tennessee basketball coach Ray Mears' strong will annoyed some people in the Vol athletics department. After several years as something of a social outcast, however, he was embraced by new UT coach Bruce Pearl in 2005.

Pearl was instrumental in getting Mears honored at the 2006 UT-Kentucky game. Pearl also convinced school officials to raise a banner saluting the former coach in the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.

Given all of this, it isn't surprising that Pearl was touched by Mears' recent passing at the age of 80. In an interview for the "Sports Nite" television show aired this week on CSS, Tennessee's current head man shared his thoughts on his legendary predecessor.

"Sometimes you don't appreciate what you have till it's gone," Pearl said. "Fortunately, we got an opportunity to appreciate him before Coach Mears left us. We've been embracing the past and the great traditions of the past, and we'll continue to do so."

Mears' 15-year stint at the Big Orange helm (1963-77) produced the program's Golden Era. He won 71 percent of his games and claimed three Southeastern Conference championships along the way. He won playing deliberate basketball and he won playing run-and-gun basketball.

"He did it with a style of play," Pearl said. "At times he was real conservative. Then he got Ernie (Grunfeld) and Bernard (King), loosened it up and let it go."

Regardless of the tempo, Mears always proved entertaining. A master showman, he knew how to incite crowds and infuriate opponents.

"Obviously, there was always great, great flair," Pearl said. "I learned a lot hearing the stories about what he did to capture the hearts and minds of the Tennessee faithful."

One of Mears' greatest accomplishments was making Tennessee competitive with perennial powerhouse Kentucky. Adolph Rupp had beaten the Vols 26 times in the previous 27 meetings when Mears was hired. The new coach promptly went 10-12 against Rupp and 5-3 against successor Joe B. Hall, finishing 15-15 overall against the Wildcats.

"He set the bar really high," Pearl said. "He looked around the league and said, 'OK ... Kentucky, that's who I'm going after.' And he had a .500 record against the Wildcats, and that's very, very impressive."

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