Ray Mears, a fan favorite and showman
who elevated Tennessee to basketball prominence during 15 seasons
as head coach in the 1960s and 1970s, died Monday, university
officials said. He was 80.
Mears died early Monday afternoon, Tennessee athletics spokesman
John Painter confirmed. Details were not immediately available, but
Painter said Mears had been in declining health for some time.
A spokesman for Rose Mortuary said funeral plans were pending.
In recent years, Mears had been recovering from a series of
health problems, including a stroke, and had been using a
wheelchair. While still coaching, he suffered from clinical
depression for years.
In the mid-1970s, Mears coached "the Ernie and Bernie show" -
Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King, who later played in the NBA. His
teams compiled a record of 278-112 at Tennessee between 1962 and
In one of his last public appearances, Mears attended a ceremony
in February to retire King's No. 53 at Tennessee's Thompson-Boling
Arena. "It's not really about me tonight," King said. "It is
really honoring them (his teammates). It's honoring Ray Mears."
Under Mears, the Vols won or shared Southeastern Conference
titles in 1967, 1972 and 1977. The 1967 championship was the
school's first in 24 years.
Three of his teams made the NCAA tournament before it expanded.
Only the SEC champion made the tourney when he coached.
"If there had been a 64-team, seeded field back then, we would
have made it a lot of those years," Mears recalled in a 2003
interview with The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville.
He had coached at Wittenberg, Ohio, prior to Tennessee and
compiled a record of 121-23, including the college division
national title in 1962.
In the days before the shot clock, his teams at Tennessee were
known for their slowdown, deliberate offense - a style of play that
infuriated Kentucky's legendary Adolph Rupp, Mears' blood rival.
To prove his point, Rupp once had someone count the number of
times Tennessee players dribbled before shooting.
Mears was known for his promotional flair. He spearheaded the
idea of "Big Orange Country" as the designated region for school
He reveled in wearing bright orange blazers and enjoyed parading
along the sidelines to agitate opponents.
He even allowed one of his players in the 1960s to ride a
unicycle on court to entertain the crowd during pregame warmups.
"The (Tennessee) program looks like it's headed in the right
direction," he said in the 2003 interview. "But I don't know if
they're ever going to get things back to where Tennessee once
After leaving coaching, Mears was athletic director at the
University of Tennessee at Martin from 1980 to 1989.
Mears played college basketball at Miami, Ohio. He was born in