The Big Orange Blazer has never looked so good to the Tennessee Volunteers. As Dick Vitale reminded a national audience on ESPN Saturday, legendary head basketball coach Ray Mears started the tradition of wearing the blazers in his tenure at the Vol helm a half century ago.
As the game began and ended and all throughout the tense struggle with bitter cross-state rival Vanderbilt, interim UT coach Tony Jones carried on that most cherished of traditions, donning the Big Orange jacket, as head coach Bruce Pearl has always done throughout his time on The Hill, to honor Coach Mears. It may have proved the key to the Vols' victory over Vandy, a hard-fought win over a hated foe.
No student body or fan base ever got riled up more by seeing Coach Mears in the Big Orange Blazer than Vanderbilt. No one relished victories over the Commodores more than Mears. His teams often played better in Nashville than they did in Knoxville as a result.
Thus, it was altogether fitting that the first time the Vol Head Coach wore the blazer resulted in Tennessee's first Southeastern Conference win of the 2011 season. The ghost of Ray Mears seemed to be in attendance Saturday, shadowing Jones and his talented team and giving them their needed winning edge in the absence of Pearl.
Even though none of the current players were even born by the time Mears retired and certainly none of them knew him personally, perhaps it was his spirit that lifted Skylar McBee's two three-point second half shots into the bucket. Skylar, a product of Grainger County, just like A.W. Davis, the "Rutledge Rifle," before him, who was Mears' protege, sparked UT's comeback from a huge first-half deficit against VU in which they dug themselves a seemingly insurmountable hole, shooting 20 percent or less.
Perhaps Mears' spirit was channeling in Scotty Hopson when he also woke up in the second half, hitting seven of his eight buckets for the game. Certainly Brian Williams' workhorse rebounding in the second stanza reminded oldtime Vol fans of the likes of Ron Widby, Tom Boerwinkle, Larry Robinson and Bernard King, all stellar board men under Mears.
With their backs to the wall, facing virtual elimination from the SEC Championship race almost before it begins, Tennessee stormed back in Thompson-Boling Arena, the place Voice of the Vols John Ward dubbed "Rocky Top" when it opened in the 1980's, on the banks of the Tennessee River, to beat a team they didn't beat last season in two tries in their historic first-ever NCAA Elite Eight run. That character was reminiscent of those Mears-coached Vol-Vandy games of old in Stokely Athletic Center in the 1960's and 1970's.
Without their spiritual leader in Pearl on the court or even in the building, this group of Volunteers showed they have the mettle to compete against anyone, just as they've been the only team so far to beat Top 10 squads like Pittsburgh and Villanova, both of which are Final Four candidates this year. The Vol Spirit was very much in evidence in the crowd of 21,000 that showed up for ESPN's historic doubleheader gameday.
Coach Pat Head Summitt, who was right at courtside cheering on the men's team in the daytime portion of the doubleheader, takes the Big Orange Blazer tradition one step further by having her entire staff wear them when Vanderbilt comes to town. In the nightcap, her Tennessee Lady Volunteers overwhelmed the Lady Commodores to sweep the day for Tennessee. Another crowd approaching 20,000 was on hand for that as well.
Yes, the Big Orange is back in the thick of things and ready to make some noise in conference play, despite attempts by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive to hamstring the Vols by suspending Pearl for half of this season's league games, a move that ESPN commentator Jay Bilas again labeled as "plain wrong" in the pregame Gameday show. Jones, in the Big Orange Blazer that Coach Mears established as a cherished tradition for UT men's basketball coaches, looked regal in triumphant victory over Vanderbilt.