Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.
Twenty-five years ago, Tennessee broke the color barrier in the SEC when it hired Wade Houston as the first African-American head coach in the conference. Today, the SEC is a model for other conferences around college basketball. In an era where minority, and specifically African-American coaches, are not given the benefit of the doubt in hiring decisions and are given the hook far too quickly in times of trouble, doing the right thing isn’t always easy. Diversity is far too often a buzzword with no true culture of systemic change. The NFL institutionalized the “Rooney Rule” to encourage interviews of minority coaches, but the SEC demonstrated its commitment and value to diversity without the enforcement of a mandate.
The South isn’t exactly a region of the United States known for valuing its diversity, yet today the Southeastern Conference has eight minority head basketball coaches including seven African-Americans among 14 schools. “Sometimes you hear about the South — I grew up in the Midwest — and you have some negative connotations, especially when you start talking about places like Mississippi and Alabama and race relations,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. “I think it speaks volumes about the hiring process in the SEC and the schools in the SEC that they would reach out and have this many African-American head coaches.” The seven African-American coaches currently in the SEC equals the most ever in a Power Six conference. The commitment to hiring the best candidates, regardless of skin color, is an accomplishment worth being applauded. “The thing the SEC should be most proud of is that us having this many African-American coaches is really not a big story. It means it’s accepted here in the South and that it’s really not a problem.” Frank Martin, a Cuban-American in his first year coaching at South Carolina and within the SEC, applauds the league’s commitment to diversity. ”I think it’s awesome this league believes in everybody and not just in certain stereotypes,” Martin said. “I am grateful that Kansas State University and now South Carolina have believed in me to give me an opportunity to do what I dreamt of doing when I was a young kid.”