When he arrived at Mississippi State in the summer of 1965, Dr. Richard Holmes felt more alone than threatened.
The Starkville, Miss., native had been called the N-word for years. So the term never bothered him the few times he heard it on MSU's campus. He was mostly startled by the isolation that stamped his existence as the university's first and only African-American student.
White students cleared the library when he walked through the doors.
They switched tables when he took a seat in the cafeteria. And although they roomed together, he lived in the dormitory alone.
He would have risked bodily harm by "mingling" with white students, especially females.
"I don't want to sugarcoat it and say it didn't bother me," he told ESPN.com.
Last spring, a 40-something black man in pursuit of a beignet stood in line with his wife at a New Orleans joint. When his phone buzzed, he did not want to answer because they had waited so long for that Big Easy delicacy and they hadn't spent much time out on the town during the week of the Final Four. But he did.
The person on the other line, an official from the search firm hired by Mississippi State to find him, informed Rick Ray that he'd been offered the Bulldogs' head-coaching job. He accepted and became the school's first African-American head basketball coach.
That was an exciting moment for the former Clemson assistant and for other minority coaches within the SEC. Seven are African-American -- Ray, Auburn's Tony Barbee, Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin, Alabama's Anthony Grant, Arkansas' Mike Anderson, Missouri's Frank Haith and LSU's Johnny Jones. South Carolina's Frank Martin is a Hispanic-American.
Out of the nation's top eight conferences (Big Six + A-10 and MWC), only the Big East (five) comes anywhere close to the SEC in terms of black head coaches. The Pac-12 currently has three, the Atlantic 10, ACC and Mountain West have two and the Big Ten and Big 12 check in with one each.
Ray said he didn't know what to expect when he began the interview process. But once he arrived, his ideas about both Mississippi and the South were nullified.
"The only thing you really know is [from] the negative connotation you have in movies and documentaries made about Mississippi," said Ray, who grew up in the Midwest. "You have this preconceived notion about the way Mississippi is going to be before you step foot in the state.
"What I've come to find out is it's the exact opposite of that.
Obviously, times have changed since that time. I've had not one negative experience at all."
The diversity within the SEC's college basketball coaching assembly belies the history of the schools within the conference and the entire region.
It was once the land of Jim Crow and segregation. That racial strife bled onto basketball courts and football fields in the South.
Months before civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated in front of his home in Jackson, Miss., Mississippi State violated a court injunction -- an unwritten rule banned the state's teams from playing integrated squads -- and faced Loyola (Ill.) in East Lansing, Mich., in an NCAA tournament matchup coined the "Game of Change" in March 1963. But race relations were more volatile in the South.
Soldiers flooded the Ole Miss campus the previous year (1962) when James Meredith became the first college student to integrate that university. Three years later, Holmes became a pioneer at MSU.
He says he didn't encounter the type of scorn and hatred portrayed by archived television images of the Southern climate. There were no taunts, nudges or physical threats. Not that he would have tolerated any of that.
"I'm not the type that would take any shoving or pushing or spitting on," he said. "It would've been over."
Still, he had to deal with the reality that he did not have any true peers. He was the only black person on campus for more than a year.
But he was never deterred. His grandfather told him that once he decided to take the step, he could not turn back.
"He told me 'If you leave, the doors will be closed. Nobody will come after you,'" Holmes said.
Holmes avoided the tragedies that had struck other African-American pioneers of that era. The mood on campus could have easily led to violence for Holmes and the other black students who followed years later.
Sociologist James Loewen attended Mississippi State in the early 1960s. He said the majority opinion on the campus at the time was that integration would result in "racial suicide."
A friend and roommate who'd returned from military duty overseas once told him that he'd interrupt the school's efforts to change tradition.
"If Mississippi State were desegregated, he swore he would be out there with his gun and attempt to stop that. And he did have a gun,"
said Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong." "I doubt that he would've. But who am I to say that he wouldn't have."
A tide of desegregation slowly streamed throughout the South in the 1960s. Minorities showed up in places from which they previously had been banned.
The most prominent example of the gradual change was witnessed in sports, especially at the collegiate level.
In 1966, an all-black starting five for Don Haskins' Texas Western squad outplayed Adolph Rupp's Kentucky team in the national title game. Even as more black players joined programs at once-segregated institutions in subsequent years, however, black coaches were still rare throughout the country.
The SEC didn't add its first black coach until Wade Houston was hired in 1989 at Tennessee. Arkansas and Nolan Richardson entered the league in the early 1990s. Richardson, who was hired by Arkansas in 1985, won a national championship with the Razorbacks in 1994.
Before the glory, however, came drama for Richardson and his family.
In one of his earliest years with the program, he and his family waited outside their home while police officers searched it after Richardson had received a bomb threat.
"To go through what I went through was unbelievable," he said. "You would think that those days were over. No, they were not over. That was probably the most horrifying situation I'd gone through."
But Richardson, who played for Haskins at Texas Western, ultimately found success at Arkansas. And three years after his national title run, Kentucky hired Tubby Smith. Smith won a national title with the Wildcats in 1998.
Their achievements preceded the diversity within the SEC today.
The current SEC is not the first conference to employ multiple black head coaches. From 2006-09, the ACC had seven black coaches as well.
But the SEC offers proof that the hiring of minority coaches is not a fad.
"I think it's just a case of we're hiring guys that are qualified to do a job," said the Vols' Martin. "You happen to be black, you happen to be white. It doesn't matter. You're qualified to do a job."
Added Smith, former Kentucky coach: "I'm happy that these guys are doing so well. You see the changes taking place in collegiate athletics."
Black coaches are putting in the work to get noticed and promoted by athletic directors and college presidents who want to elevate their programs.
When he interviewed Ray, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said he did not feel any pressure to go after a black coach.
He just wanted someone who could lead, recruit and win.
"If you want to win, you don't pay attention to skin color," he said.
I think it's just a case of we're hiring guys that are qualified to do a job. You happen to be black, you happen to be white. It doesn't matter. You're qualified to do a job.
”-- Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin
Despite the strides, however, Dr. Richard Lapchick says work remains.
Lapchick studies minority hiring in collegiate athletics as the leader of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida.
According to the organization's most recent race and gender report card, in 2010, the number of black coaches in college basketball had declined -- from 25 percent to 21 percent over a four-year period. The drop worries Lapchick, who has pushed for a version of the NFL's Rooney Rule for college sports.
He wants a rule that would force colleges to interview more minority candidates. The "Rooney Rule" -- NFL teams must interview a minority candidate before making a head-coaching hire -- and similar policies have led to more minority hires in other sports, including pro baseball.
Lapchick is convinced it would help college athletics, too.
"We need to give men's college basketball a lot more scrutiny because it's gotten worse after years of being the best in college sports,"
Lapchick said. "I think people weren't paying attention."
Richardson said he's proud of the progress but not completely satisfied.
"There's steps to be made, there's some great steps to be gained," he said.
Still, the gains were unimaginable 60 years ago, perhaps even 30 years ago. Tennessee's Martin, Mississippi State's Ray and other black coaches in the SEC lead on terrain that was forbidden for folks who looked like them a generation ago.
Today, it's not the subject of movies and magazine spreads or front-page stories because it's becoming so normal.
"To see that and to see the number of students and the coaches over the years, it really is inspiring in and of itself," Holmes said.
"We've come a long way."