On a warm Tuesday afternoon, in a room filled with red and white balloons, clothes and banners, UA officials announced the hiring of its ninth head coach for women’s basketball – Mike Neighbors.
Neighbors has already seen success at the collegiate level at the University of Washington, where he has been the head coach since the 2013 season. His teams got better each year of his tenure, and in his first season, he led the Huskies to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Semifinal. In his second season, he led them to the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
He followed that up with an appearance in the Final Four in 2015, and in 2016 he returned to the tournament and made it to the Sweet Sixteen.
After seeing plenty of success in Seattle, his career has taken him back to where it began: the UofA.
“Typically, when you bring a new coach on, there’s what we call some ‘on-board,’” Athletic Director Jeff Long said. “You have to take them in and teach them about the Arkansas Razorbacks. You have to tell them about how we’re the professional sports (in this state), we’re everything rolled into one. And you’ve got to take them back to Hugo Bezdek and the wild band of Razorbacks. But this candidate, we didn’t have to do that.”
Long said this hire will resonate across the basketball world, showing that Arkansas is serious about winning.
“It’s seen as a homecoming by all of us here, but really, across this great country and across women’s basketball, it’s seen as Arkansas hiring an incredibly competent and successful women’s head basketball coach,” Long said.
Mike Neighbors will come into the program ready to turn things around.
“We’re in the toughest women’s basketball conference in the country. The Final Four and the National Championship game is proof of that,” Long said. “(We needed) someone who knew how tough it is to compete and win in this conference, and someone who relished the opportunity to do that. When we hired Mike Neighbors, the SEC knew we hired a game changer.”
The women’s basketball team is in transition after the resignation of Jimmy Dykes. Dykes resigned on March 4 after going 9-23 in conference play and 25-35 overall in the past two years.
Neighbors was hired in part because of his ability to interact and bond with a team.
“We wanted somebody that could coach basketball, you’ve got to know Xs and Os, right?,” Long said. “But to the search committee, it was important we hired somebody who could connect with young women in our program now and in the future because that connection is what takes a group of players and turns them into a team.”
Neighbors has always been a Razorback fan, and he comes in with plenty of memories of the teams this university has put together.
“My earliest childhood memories involve the University of Arkansas and the Razorbacks, but it was the losses where I learned why I loved the Razorbacks, because I would cry,” Neighbors said. “It was until an embarrassing age, which we’re not going to talk about, that I would continue to cry when the Razorbacks lost and it was then that I learned that’s why I loved the Razorbacks, because I cried. And you only cry when things are important to you.”
Neighbors was able to meet briefly with the team before his introductory press conference, and that meeting gave him all the confidence he needed to know he was where he needed to be.
“I met with (the team) the first time this morning, very briefly, and in a very short period of time, I learned again why I’m here,” Neighbors said. “I didn’t know before whether I was ready, I didn’t know before whether I could do it, but after sitting in there with you all today in a couple individual meetings, I’m in the right spot. Not only is it home, this is where I’m supposed to be coaching basketball.”
Neighbors came home to win games for the UofA and to give the young women on his team the best college experience he can.
“I did not come home just because my mom makes the best sweet tea in Arkansas,” Neighbors said. “I didn’t come home because my daughter is a junior in college here and I didn’t come because my son is a freshman in high school, that’s not why I came. That’s part of it. But I came because of the student athlete experience that you guys deserve.”
Coming home meant a lot not just to Neighbors, but to his family as well. His daughter, Abby, is a junior at the UofA, and she couldn’t be happier about the hiring of her father.
“I like it a lot,” Abby Neighbors said. “Being in college, I was able to go up to Seattle quite a bit to see him, but just having him back, even him being back for the past week, I’ve been able to like, stop by the office and see him. So it’s super nice to have that, just because I’m a daddy’s girl.”
Abby was able to see firsthand how her dad treated his teams when she traveled with them to Australia.
“Over the summer we traveled to Australia,” Abby Neighbors said. “So I was able to hang out with the girls and see his interaction with them. I feel like he treats them like he treats me. He treats them like his daughters. So instead of just having one daughter, he has like 15.”
Abby said her dad is excited to come home and this is his dream job. She said this is going to be a special time for her dad.
“I think it means a lot, just because this is his dream job,” Abby Neighbors said. “He’s always worked his way up to this. Obviously there’s a lot of rebuilding to do with the team, but just being back home and being close to his family (is great). The fan base will grow, and it will just make him more excited.
Mike Neighbors focuses on building trust between himself and his players, and once that trust is built, his teams begin to take shape and begin to move toward where he wants to take them.
“His main things with his players is trust,” Abby Neighbors said. “If they trust him, you can go a long way. If there’s no trust, you can’t go very far, (and that’s) with any relationship, whether that be in basketball or your daily life. And so I feel like you have to build that foundational trust before you see things happen on and off the court.”
Long said the hire is just the first domino to fall for this program, and it will take time to get up to SEC standards, but he wants Razorback fans to know: it’s coming.
“It’s not going to happen overnight. It isn’t going to be in the first few weeks of the season, but it’s going to come, and it’s going to come in a big, big way,” Long said.