Ray Mears leaned forward in his chair while twirling a large ring in his hands. It was a rough profession, he was saying, "the worst pressure cooker in the world."

The ring twirling stopped. "You know," he said sadly, "its a miracle more college basketball coaches haven't quit because of the pressures. There's never a break. It never lets up. Never."

Ray Mears has spent 21 years in a self-imposed pressure cooker, including the last 15 seasons at Tennessee. When he could sense an easing of the pressures he'd do something to get the juices flowing again.

Relaxing was just a loathsome to him as losing.

"I view basketball as going to war with my eney," Mears once said. If he could arouse rival fans and players with his own shenanigans, he felt his teams would benefit. Even his book on basketball is entitled, "It's All in the State of Mind."

In his first season at Tennessee, Mears pushed himself too hard, working 20 hours a day trying to turn around a program that had been wallowing in mediocrity for years. But he stopped coaching before the season was finished and entered a hospital to recover from mental exhaustion.

He didn't return to coaching until next season.

Three months agi, Mears found himself in the middle of a similar nightmare. He was depressed and exhausted; his doctor worned him to enter a hospital before things got worse.

He did. But not for a whole season. Mears is back coaching Tennessee again, back in that pressure cooker that is both his friend and enemy. Although he says he hasn't felt better in years, it is incredible that he would risk his health by returning to the bench so quickly.

Mears doesn't look at it that way. "I could have returned earlier," he said. "I was just being careful."

But the reasons behind why he is back wearing his bright orange blazer at games are more complex than his answer.

To understand what drives Mears, it is necessary to understand what the current season means to him.

He has been successful in the past, winning almost 75 per cent of 506 games before this season. But he has never won a major college national title, he hasn't even been to the NCAA final four. Instead, he has been content with turning average players into winners, a feat that has earned admiraiton among his peers but little national fame.

This year promised to be different. He had put together his first legitimate national champion contender, complete with two bona fide all-American candidates and a strong supporting cast. He was convinced he could finally play with anyone in the nation.

"We existed for years without the blue chippers." Mears said. "You always wonder what you can do with the same caliber players that kentucky has for example. I mean, how many coaches really ever produce a national champion?"

Not may. Mears wasn't about to let so many years of work and frustration be wasted if he could help it.

"This is the best team I've ever had," he said.

It was even going to be a year when Mears didn't have to go to war with the rest of the basketball world. Oh, his players still would do their pregame Globetrotter warmup routine to irritate rival crowds and they'd still be introduced at home games as each ran trhough a banner to an awaiting spotlight. But he probably wouldn't need to get things charged up, as he had done before, by engaging Kentucky's Joe Hall in a battle of words or by creating controversies out of minor incidents.

It was going to be the most enjoyable season of his career. He was so sure of its potential that he had a picture of the Omni, the Atlanta arena where the NCAA finals will be held, painted on the back of the players' practice uniforms.

But that was beofre one of his stars, Barnard King, began haveing personal problems. And that is when the latest nightmare began.

"Bernard was not the cause of my troubles," Mears says now. "It was my schedule and a whole bunch of things. I hadn't had a vacation for three years. I never tested. As I look back on it, I wasn't feeling good for the last couple of years. I just didn't recognize it.

"I'd go to clinics or speak at banquests but I didn't really feel up to it. Still, I believe in doing my best at anything I'd try so I'd push myself instead of backing up. Fortunately, I backed off before it was too late."

If Mears is a showman, and he is, he also is a disciplinarian. At times, he makes Woody Hayes or Bobby Knight seem easy. His basketball book lists a whopping 147 "basketball quotations to live by," which are mainly self-discipline instructions. He even has told his team where to place their shoes - and shoe laces - after practices and games.

He particularly abhors drinking and smoking. So when King was arrested last Sept. 11 for possession of marijuana, then again on Sept. 23 for reckless driving and speeding and then once more on Oct. 23 for drunken driving, violation of the state car registration law and reckless driving. Mears was mortified.

Everything the coach stood for was being violated for King. Everytime the phone rang to tell him that the best player who has ever worn a Tennessee basketball uniform was in trouble with the law, Mears was faced with an increasinly troublesome dilemma.

Should he suspend King, or kick him permanently off the team?

Mears chose suspension, King could practice but not play, at east through the first semester. He would miss at least two games. He would not get the tutoring and guidance he had been receiving from the athletic department. He was cut off, left on his own, and told to start attending class regularly.

Thirteen days later, in November Mears entered a Virginia hospital suffering from physical and mental exhaustion. Friends knew he would be back, but they weren't so sure about King, who later had the marijuana charges dismissed.

"He'll be reinstated if the attends classes and gets himself straightened out academically," said associate coach Stu Aberdeen, who ran the club during Mears' absence. "He also has got to do the things we feel are in keeping with what we demand of our players off the court."

King, who grew up in a tough New York City neighborhood and learned at an early age how to survive, wealthered this crisis, too. He improved his grades, attended class and rejoined the club for its third game, which the Volunteers lost to Duke.

Mears returned from the hospital the following week and took over th e squad in January. He says things couldn't be better.

"I'm really like a basketball director now," he said. "I have both assistants at practice every day, instead of having one out recuriting or scouting. They are doing most of the teaching and all of the defensive instructions. I concentrate mostly on offense.

"But the hard work is nover. That comes in the first six weeks of practice. This is the fun part. And I've found it to be enjoyable since I returned. Of course, winning helps."

And the Volunteers have been winning - 12 straight victories, including upsets over Kentucky and Alabama. They've climbed in the national rankings to seventh in the latest A.P. poll.

Mears seems calmer now, more at ease with life. He doesn't come to games anymore like a bantam rooster, with his chest stuck out challenging opponents so belligerently that a critic once said he was "haughty, cocky, squirrelly, arrogant and obnoxious."