FAYETTEVILLE - Some might say that Mike Neighbors wanted to come home in the worst way.
Because statisticall.y it seems leaving the University of Washington was Neighbors’ worst way back to his native Arkansas.
As Washington’s head women’s basketball coach, Neighbors’ last two of his four years head coaching in Seattle ended with his Huskies at the Final Four and the Sweet Sixteen.
Greenwood native, UA alum and former Lady Razorbacks administrator and assistant coach Neighbors was officially introduced Tuesday as the head women’s coach. He succeeds Jimmy Dykes whose third Razorbacks season ended with Arkansas 2-14 in the SEC and currently with but seven actively on scholarship and one of them has asked for a release to transfer after the spring semester.
Why leave all that for this?
“I want to be part of the solution to my university,” Neighbors said, noting he wanted to be but was not fully prepared to be the Arkansas solution when Dykes was hired to succeed former Arkansas coach Tom Collen in 2014.
“ I wasn’t ready the last time this job came open,” Neighbors said. “I had only been a one-year head coach and I hadn’t worked hard enough in my career at that point to advance far enough to have this job any other time it had come open. So I worked really hard at Washington and we had some great things going and we had great kids and as a result that hard work made this job possible.”
It’s the job he always he wanted since “I was 10 years old 38 years ago,” Neighbors said.
“It’s been the job that has driven me in every decision I have made,” Neighbors said. “So regardless of a Sweet Sixteen finish compared to a not Sweet Sixteen finish, I want to be a part of the group that is being remembered for getting this thing to where we are all proud of it.”
Neighbors talked of growing up in Greenwood following the Hogs’ men’s basketball highlights like U.S. Reed’s halfcourt shot beating Louisville in the NCAA Tournament and of course Scotty Thurman’s 3-point dagger into Duke as Arkansas won the 1994 national championship, and he recalled point Christy Smith directing Gary Blair’s 1998 Lady Razorbacks to the Final Four and Lou Holtz’s 1977 football Razorbacks upsetting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl.
“But it was the losses that I learned how much I loved the Razorbacks because I would cry,” Neighbors said.
He would have wept considerably experiencing last season’s 2-14 in the SEC and one and done in the SEC Tournament had he been of weeping age.
This past season’s Arkansas times were even tougher than Neighbors lone year as Susie Gardner’s Arkansas assistant in her final year failing to succeed Blair whom Neighbors assisted as an administrator on a staff ultimately with three Final Four coaches including Blair winning the national championship at A&M, Neighbors in 2016 at Washington and former Arkansas assistant Vic Schaeffer head coaching Mississippi State to the 2017 Final Four national runner-up after knocking out unbeaten defending champion UConn.
Nevertheless, including sophomore Aaliyah Wilson, who has asked for her release but has talked to Neighbors and will meet again with him Wednesday, Neighbors vows there is a core to build around but that he must first recruit them before he recruits others.
“The current team obviously is the first thing,” Neighbors said. “Any time you come into a new situation taking care of the kids that have already said, ‘Yes’ to this program. There are a lot of reasons that this job is open and you’ve got to go in there and figure out how many of those are reasons an how can you heal those wounds. Are they starting to scab over? And can you heal them or do they reopen and become wounds again? So I started with that this morning.”
Neighbors said he has invited his Washington staff to join him at Arkansas but doesn’t know if all will come and that he will talk with the current assistants on Dykes’ staff and definitely keep one, Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor fixture Amber Nicholas Shirey who starred for former coach John Sutherland’s Lady Razorbacks. Either as an assistant coach or administrator has has assisted, Sutherland, Blair, Gardner, Collen and Dykes and has been a friend of Neighbors since college days.
“ I graduated high next to Amber - Nicholas and Neighbors if you put it alphabetically,” Neighbors said. “I talked to Amber today and she is going to be here every step of the way that we are doing things.”
Obviously Neighbors, whose daughter Abby, is a junior at the UA and son, Alec, is a freshman at Rogers High School, comes home with passion for the Razorbacks but Dykes, a Fayetteville High grad and former Razorbacks walk-on under Eddie Sutton has that, too.
However, Dykes was hired had never been a head coach nor had ever coached women when Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long hired him after Dykes’ 17 years as an ESPN college basketball analyst.
Neighbors’ coaching experience goes back to coaching Arkansas high school ball at Bentonville and Cabot and paying assistant coaching dues at Tulsa, Arkansas, Colorado, Xavier and Washington before compiling a 98-40 record in four seasons at Washington including one NIT semifinal and three NCAA Tournaments and coaching consensus All-American Kelsey Plum.
“When we hired Mike Neighbors, the SEC knew we hired a game-changer,” Long said. “Somebody who was going to make a real difference. it’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s going to come. He has succeeded and will succeed at the highest level.”