Knoxville (WVLT/AP) - The University of Tennessee tells Volunteer TV News Legendary UT Basketball Coach Ray Mears died Monday afternoon. He was 80 years old.
Mears was the head coach at Tennessee from 1963-1977 and is the winningest coach in school history. His record in 15 seasons was 278-112 for a .713 winning percentage.
“Coach Mears was one of the winningest coaches in college basketball history. He brought a style of play and atmosphere to Tennessee basketball that will always be treasured,” says Tennessee Head Coach Bruce Pearl. “I feel very fortunate to have met him and to have spent time with him over the past few years. I know how truly excited he was about the resurgence of Tennessee basketball. I am glad that we were able to honor Coach Mears and John Ward last season and retire Bernard King’s jersey this season because their names will hang in the rafters forever.”
Under Mears' direction, Tennessee made seven postseason appearances. The Vols made three NCAA Tournament appearances, two National Invitation Tournament showings and participated in the now discontinued Collegiate Commissioners Association meet.
In the mid-1970s, Mears coached "The Ernie and Bernie Show" -- Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. His teams compiled a record of 278-and-112 at Tennessee between 1962 and 1978.
Under Mears, the Vols won or shared Southeastern Conference titles in 1967, 1972 and 1977.
Three of his teams made the NCAA Tournament before it expanded. Only the SEC Champion made the tourney when he coached.
“Ray Mears was a giant in the giant in the basketball coaching profession. He took Tennessee to heights that they had never experienced before. More importantly he was a giant of a man and he will be missed by the basketball profession,” says former head coach Don DeVoe. “I was the coached who replaced him but the support he showed me during that time of transition meant a great del to me. He was always looking for the positive things for Tennessee basketball and how we could improve.”
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.
Nine of his players went on to earn All-America honors. The two-time Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year (1967 and 1977) saw one of his players named the SEC Player of the Year four times.
Mears was known for his promotional flair, spearheading the idea of "Big Orange Country."
“Perhaps more than any other person, Ray Mears made it comfortable for everyone to be a Tennessee fan by his marketing ideas. That made UT athletics inclusive rather than exclusive,” says former Voice of the Vols John Ward. “Anyone could be a citizen of Big Orange Country. Ray Mears’ ideas made sidewalk alumni feel at home just as a much as a graduate with four degrees. That was his strength.”
He reveled in wearing bright orange blazers and enjoyed parading along the sidelines to agitate opponents.
Additionally, he allowed one of his players in the 1960s to ride a unicycle on court to entertain the crowd during pregame warmups.
After leaving coaching, he was athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Martin.
Ray Mears was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, the Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame in 1987, the Miami of Ohio Cradle of Coaches in 2003 and is an honorary member the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, class of 1995.
“Coach Mears was a true Tennessee legend,” says UT Athletic Director Mike Hamilton. “He created a tradition of basketball success, pageantry, and fan support by which all future basketball teams and coaches will be measured. When speaking with fans of Coach Mears or one of his former players, everyone has a Stokely story or a memory of his great showmanship. He made a difference, he made an impression and he had great vision. He will be missed.”
He was born November 8, 1926 in Dover, Ohio. Mears is survived by his wife, Donna, and his three sons, Steve, Mike and Matt.
The funeral service will be held at 7:00 p.m. Thursday, June 14, at West Hills Baptist Church, 409 North Winston Road. The family will receive friends immediately following the service.
The interment will be at 11:00 a.m. Friday, June 15, at Highland Memorial Cemetery on Sutherland Ave. Those wishing to attend the interment should meet at the cemetery at 10:45 a.m.
The family is requesting that memorials be made to the Ray and Dana Mears Athletic Scholarship Endowment, Volunteer Athletic Scholarship Fund, PO Box 15016, Knoxville, TN 37901.
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)
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