KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Ray Mears, the Tennessee basketball
coach who presided over the "Ernie and Bernie show" during his 15
seasons guiding the Volunteers, died Monday. He was 80.
Mears, the winningest men's coach in school history, had been in
declining health for some time, university spokesman John Painter
In the mid-1970s, Mears coached future NBA players Ernie
Grunfeld and Bernard King. Mears' teams went 278-112 at Tennessee
between 1962 and 1978.
"He was a great leader, innovator and an extremely competitive
person," Grunfeld, president of basketball operations for the
NBA's Washington Wizards, said Monday. "He taught me about hard
work, dedication and loyalty -- lessons that have stayed with me my
whole life. He encouraged us to not only be good basketball players
but also to be good human beings."
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.
"Coach Mears was a true Tennessee legend," Tennessee athletic
director Mike Hamilton said. "He created a tradition of basketball
success, pageantry and fan support by which all future basketball
teams and coaches will be measured."
Current Vols coach Bruce Pearl, who has adopted the bright
orange blazer favored by Mears -- the man credited with coining the
term "Big Orange Country" -- said he "brought a style of play and
atmosphere to Tennessee basketball that will always be treasured."
Three of his teams made the NCAA tournament before it expanded.
Only the SEC champion made the tourney when he coached.
In 2003, Mears had a series of health problems, including a
stroke. While coaching, he suffered from clinical depression for
"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 coached at Wittenberg, Ohio, prior to Tennessee and compiled
a record of 121-23, including the Division II national title in
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 Hall of Fame coach, Adolph Rupp, Mears' main
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
support. He reveled in wearing bright orange blazers and enjoyed
parading along the sideline 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 1980-89.
Mears played college basketball at Miami, Ohio. He was born in
Mears is survived by his wife, Dana; and three sons, Steve, Mike