Ramon Asa Mears, basketball coach at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, has one wife, which is normal, two young sons, which is not unheard of, and a small, white convertible with a leaky top—which could happen to anyone. But beyond these, there are few similarities between Ray Mears and the rest of the basketball coaches in the U.S.
Mears began his career at Wittenberg a little over five years ago by modestly announcing at an alumni meeting: "My goal is to win the national championship." He was just 29 at the time, so the alumni, fully aware that the basketball team had lost 26 of its last 39 games, forgave this outburst as a case of youthful idealism. Then Mears decided that the fast-break offense and the man-to-man defense, then favored by about 85% of the coaches in the country, would not do. He set to work developing his own offense and his own version of the zone defense. Finally, observing that Wittenberg games had been attracting as few as 100 students per night, Mears plugged for an increase in the size of the cheer-leading corps (with pretty coeds), the formation of a pep band and the installation of a huge tiger head at one end of the court. The results are impressive.
Mears's Wittenberg Tigers now have won 114 of 136 games. They have not lost once in 56 starts at home. They have won the championship of the strong 15-team Ohio Conference for the past three years, and for the past two seasons Mears's complex zone defense has made Wittenberg the nation's No. 1 defensive team. Last year, in fact, Wittenberg allowed only 43.8 points per game and won the NCAA college division championship tournament.
On the wall of Mears's office is a plaque proclaiming him 1960 Ohio College Basketball Coach of the Year, an award that takes on added significance when you realize that the coaches who voted for Mears passed over such men as Ed Jucker of Cincinnati and Tom Blackburn of Dayton. There is also a long, mounted citation from the Ohio Senate, commending Mears for his part in "firmly establishing Ohio at the top of the basketball world." The sight of these does not remove the constant worried frown on Mears's youthful face. (At 35 he looks so boyish that a stranger would have difficulty picking him out from among his players.) "When you win that NCAA championship," he says, "it doesn't matter if you lose your whole team the next year. [He lost four of his five starters.] You've got to defend it every game."
To defend the title, Mears spends from one to three nights a week driving all over the state to scout opposing teams, often getting home after 3 a.m. Another night or two is taken up when Wittenberg itself has a game, and still another when he takes the entire team to a movie on the Friday before every Saturday game. ("It helps the team relax," says Mears, "and besides, then you know right where everyone is.") Mears also joins the team for dinner every evening after practice.
Since most Wittenberg students came from the upper quarter of their high school graduating class, recruiting can be a painful experience for Mears. He shudders whenever a high school coach tells him of a prospect who is "not good enough for a major college but just right for you." This year's team has no one over 6 feet 4 inches tall, but it does have a forward, Al Thrasher, who was named the outstanding high school player in Ohio, and two other starters from the annual Ohio-Indiana High School All-Star Game. Despite a lack of experience overall, it is a highly disciplined crew, and this is no accident. Mears is a bear for details. At practice, dressed in a red-and-white jacket, shoulders hunched up and hands stuffed into his pockets, he paces incessantly among his players, running and rerunning plays with a brooding insistence on perfection. Road trips are so highly organized that every man is assigned not only to a certain car but to a specific seat ("the longest legs go in the right front"). "He's the only coach I know of," says one player, "who keeps a shot chart on the other team before the game starts." Mears is superstitious, too. He never changes his starting lineup when the team is winning; he wears the same mustard-colored blazer at every game; every pregame meal concludes with the same dessert—a dish of green jello ("I don't know what he has against ice cream," sighs one starter).
Idiosyncrasies aside, it is tactics, not magic, that makes Ray Mears a winning coach. "We have three or four ways to defense every maneuver," he says, "and we have an offense that's tough to prepare for because it's unorthodox. I use the 1-3-1 offense because everyone else uses the two-guard offense. That way you have to make special preparations for us, and you lose a lot of practice time. Whatever you're going to do, I'm going to try to do the opposite.
"Some people say we run a slowdown game. That's not true. Call it disciplined. We'll fast-break whenever there's an opening, but we're never wild." To make sure his players don't take bad percentage shots, Mears has a rule: When in doubt, don't do it. Instead, he orders them to run the play again. "It may take another 20 seconds, but we'll get the basket," he says. The result: Wittenberg is currently making 44% of its shots. There is probably nothing Mears hates more than to see his team throw away the ball without even getting off a shot—a misfortune known in the trade as a turnover. He is equally unhappy, of course, when the other team scores a basket, though this is kept to a minimum by Wittenberg's versatile zone defense. Mears favors the zone because it enables him to keep his few tall players near the basket and stop the opposition from driving in on fast breaks. He has developed a series of shifts and slides to hinder every known offense. "Of course, if they're bigger than we are," he admits, "they can overpower us by getting all the rebounds." Mears's guiding principle on defense is to put pressure on the opponent's best shooter. He will either double-team that man or simply assign one player to stick with him all over the court—which means that part of the team is actually playing man-for-man while the rest stays in a zone. "We're leaving a man free somewhere when we double-team," says Mears, "but it's a good gamble, because a lot of good basketball players can't think on their feet. We leave openings but they don't see them. Unless they've learned to play a team game, they'll usually wind up with their worst man taking the shot."
Mears's shifts are working better than ever this year. Wittenberg again leads the nation on defense. Opponents who normally make more than 40% of their shots are making only 32% against Wittenberg, and are scoring a meager 40.2 points per game. Wittenberg's last two losses, the first in conference play in three years, took place when two coaches finally decided to fight fire with fire—they used Mears-type zones. Why more haven't done so is a mystery to Mears. "I don't know why coaches act ashamed of using a zone," he muses. "It's part of the game, isn't it? I think it's mainly because they don't know how to crack zones, so they don't want others to start using them." Wittenberg home games are preceded by a Mears-planned production number. The gym is darkened, the crowd stomps and claps, the pep band socks out the Wittenberg fight song and the players rush onto the court through the jaws of the huge spotlighted wooden tiger head. "The whole place really gets fired up," glows Mears. "When we play Tiger Rag, we've got one trombone player who really goes nuts." He heartily approves of this. "I wanted that pep band," he says, "because my experience has always been that when you have a band, the coach doesn't have to say a word."