Mike Neighbors is set to return to his alma mater as the new University of Arkansas women’s basketball head coach.
The Seattle Times broke the news Sunday afternoon that Arkansas was expected to announce the new coaching hire later in the day.
Instead, the school waited until Monday morning, likely to avoid conflicting with coverage of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Game, to release the announcement on the school’s official athletics’ website.
In an essay entitled “The Dream Job,” Neighbors detailed memories of growing up in Arkansas, attending sporting events with his grandparents and his dream of becoming a Razorback.
“Always wearing red and usually wearing my No. 32 jersey (I loved Sidney Moncrief), I tried really hard in baseball and basketball. I even tried football, but I knew that wasn’t going to work out for me. I wasn’t good enough to a Razorback All-American.”
Part of his essay included a picture gallery with several throwbacks pictures to Neighbors’ childhood, which showed the 48-year-old’s lifelong love of the Razorbacks.
Neighbors has spent the past four years at the University of Washington, where he accumulated a 98-41 record. He led the Huskies to three NCAA postseason tournaments, including a Final Four berth, and one NIT appearance.
Neighbors departure coincides with the departures of All-American Chantel Osahor and NCAA all-time women’s basketball leading scorer Kelsey Plum, who was named the Naismith College Player of the Year and awarded the Dawn Staley Award, among other awards.
The coach reportedly paid a $1 million buyout from his Washington contract before accepting his dream job.
Neighbors is expected to bring his mentoring capabilities in his return to the struggling SEC school, where he was formerly an assistant coach. The Lady Razorbacks went 13-17 and finished the year at the bottom of the SEC.
After a disappointing year, which, as the Arkansas Times reported, saw the team catapulted into the spotlight over kneeling during the national anthem instead of their gameplay, Arkansas fans hope that Neighbors can build a powerhouse to compete in the SEC.
“It was vitally important to our search committee and to me that we attract someone who is entrenched in the women’s game and someone who has demonstrated the ability to connect with our young women on and off the court,” University of Arkansas Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long said in a statement confirming the Mike Neighbors hiring.
Some could see that as a dig at Jimmy Dykes, the man Neighbors is replacing.
Dykes had no previous women’s coaching experience and had not been in a coaching position for nearly 25 years before being hired as the head coach at Arkansas. He resigned earlier this year after going 43-49 over three seasons.
Long continued his praise of the new coach.
“Mike Neighbors has spent his career teaching, coaching and mentoring young women dating back to his time as a high school coach in Arkansas. He is a member of an elite group of coaches who have taken a team to the Final Four and that is the kind of leader we need in the strongest conference in women’s basketball. I know that Mike’s energy and excitement about being a Razorback will inspire our student-athletes and our fans.”
The Razorbacks will need that energy and excitement to compete in the talent-laden SEC, a conference no longer dominated by the Tennessee Lady Vols.
Instead, it was South Carolina’s Lady Gamecocks defeating the Mississippi State Lady Bulldogs, the team that eliminated Neighbors’ Lady Huskies in the Sweet Sixteen, for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship Sunday, a rematch of the SEC tournament final.
That elimination might have given Neighbors the advantage on the coaching job as The Seattle Times reported that Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer was considered the other leading candidate for the Arkansas job.
Arkansas administrators, boosters and fans have high expectations for coaches in any sport, something Mike Neighbors can definitely live up to, if not exceed.
[Featured Image by Elaine Thompson/AP Images]