By Tom Mattingly
What March 6, 1967, gave to the Tennessee basketball program, March 6, 1978, took away. Both days” belong” to Ray Mears.
On March 6, 1967, Mears was in his fifth season at Tennessee. The Vols won the SEC basketball title, first in 24 years, at Starkville, Miss., Tennessee 78, Mississippi State 76, in three overtimes. It was, as Marvin West has said, a “wonderful game if measured by intensity.”
Exactly 11 years later, the “Ray Mears Years” at Tennessee came to an end, in the season finale at Auburn, Ala. The Vols lost to the Tigers 107-94, with the timing of the announcement seeming strange, perhaps even surreal.
“The announcement came without fanfare and marching bands, the way Mears did things during his 15-year career at Tennessee. . . Instead, it came in a simple five-paragraph press release on black and white mimeograph paper.” That’s the way sportswriter Ron Bliss (“Ray Mears’ Big Orange Memories”) wrote of the news Mears was stepping down.
In the 1966-67 season, no one gave the Vols much of a chance to contend for the title. Ron Widby was back after an All-SEC season in 1965-66, but there were too many question marks surrounding the team, even if Widby did foresee the title coming home to Knoxville.
There were sophomore guards Bill Justus and Bill Hann, who had not yet been through the rigors of the SEC’s 18-game schedule. Tom Boerwinkle was an unproven commodity in the pivot. Tom Hendrix had been a starter as a sophomore. He did make the critical free throws in a 52-50 double overtime win at Kentucky.
Widby led the conference in scoring, and Boerwinkle averaged 12 points and 10.2 rebounds. Justus and Hendrix were double figure scorers, and Hann ran the team capably from the point. That season, all the little pieces fell into place in exactly the right way.
At Mississippi State, Widby had 35 points to lead the way, while Justus, measured for goat’s horns after missing two free throws in the second overtime, knocked home the game-winning points late in the third extra period.
The music died 11 years later, however, at the end of an 11-16 season, played under the tutelage of interim coach Cliff Wettig.
The real surprise was the way Mears tenure at Tennessee came crashing down at season’s end. When the decision came down, it wasn’t pretty.
“The end of the Mears era was handled poorly,” said West. “The coach deserved better than the mimeographed handout. In fact, the coach deserved better treatment through much of his Tennessee career.”
As you consider how his tenure ended, you have to go back to the way it began. Bowden Wyatt, then acting director of athletics and head football coach, hired Mears on April 29, 1962, from Wittenberg (Ohio) College, largely on the recommendation of football assistant coach Jim McDonald, like Mears, an Ohio native.
“When Bowden came up, he had a little too much to drink and was loud,” he said after meeting Wyatt the first time. “He kind of looked like John Wayne and scared me. I thought: ‘Lord, what is this?’”
During Mears’ time at Tennessee, the program quickly grew into one of the nation’s finest. Ray roamed the sidelines in an orange blazer, leading the Vols from the depths of a 4-19 record the year before he arrived to a 22-6 record and the SEC title in 1976-77.
Men wore orange ties to the games. The Vol Network grew and grew. The Vols outgrew the Armory-Fieldhouse, moving to Stokely Center in Mears’ fifth season. Game nights in Knoxville became “must-see” events.
He took on Kentucky and Vanderbilt with a vengeance, once wearing a brown suit at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. That upset Adolph Rupp, the “Rupp” of Rupp Arena, who believed the brown suit belonged to him… and to him alone.
Mears’ “Long Walk” at Vanderbilt and the resulting barrage of oranges are part of the legendary “Tennessee moments,” even today.
He made other teams play the way he wanted. As they say, “He could take yours and beat his, or take his and beat yours.”
Give Tennessee the ball just before the half, and someone, maybe A. W. Davis, Danny Schultz, Widby, Justus, Jimmy England, Mike Edwards, or Ernie Grunfeld, to name just a few, would hit a jumper from somewhere, it didn’t matter where, to get the last points before intermission. It was uncanny.
Whenever there is a sea of orange and a capacity crowd at a Tennessee basketball game, the legend of Ray Mears lives on.