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Ray Mears, 80, legendary basketball coach at Tennessee

Ray Mears coached the Volunteers from 1962 to 1978. Ray Mears coached the Volunteers from 1962 to 1978. (file/ap)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Ray Mears, the Tennessee basketball coach who presided over the "Ernie and Bernie show" during his 15 seasons guiding the Volunteers, died yesterday. He was 80.

Mr. Mears, the winningest men's coach in school history, had been in declining health for some time, university spokesman John Painter said.

In the mid-1970s, Mr. Mears coached future NBA players Ernie Grunfeld and Bernard King. Mr. Mears's 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 yesterday. "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 Mr. Mears, the Volunteers 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 tournament when he coached.

"If there had been a 64-team, seeded field back then, we would have made it a lot of those years," Mr. Mears once recalled.

In 2003, Mr. Mears had health problems, including a stroke. He had clinical depression for years during coaching .

He coached at Wittenberg, Ohio, before Tennessee and compiled a record of 121-23, including the Division II national title in 1961.

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, Mr. Mears's main rival.

To prove his point, Rupp once had someone count the number of times Tennessee players dribbled before shooting.

Mr. 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 a 2003 interview. "But I don't know if they're ever going to get things back to where Tennessee once was."

"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 Mr. Mears, said he "brought a style of play and atmosphere to Tennessee basketball that will always be treasured."

After leaving coaching, Mr. Mears was athletic director at the University of Tennessee at Martin from 1980 to 1989.

He had played college basketball at the University of Miami in Ohio. He was born in Dover, Ohio.

Mr. Mears leaves his wife, Dana; and three sons, Steve, Mike, and Matt.