Dykes, high school coaches, players react to Neighbors’ hiring

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Tuesday, April 4, 2017
Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes watches during a game against Auburn on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Beach
Arkansas coach Jimmy Dykes watches during a game against Auburn on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in Fayetteville.

The home phone rang inside Fort Smith Northside girls basketball coach Rickey Smith's house one evening. Smith was unable to get to the phone right away, so his daughter picked up.

"Hi, Kaitlyn. How are you?" said then-Xavier women's assistant basketball coach Mike Neighbors.

"She was in awe. He remembers everybody's names," Smith said. "He can tell you nearly every coach in the state of Arkansas' spouse and children's names. That's just the type of guy Mike is."

Neighbors was hired to become the ninth women's basketball coach at Arkansas on Monday. The Greenwood native most recently led the Washington Huskies to a 98-41 record, highlighted by a 2016 Final Four appearance, in four seasons as head coach.

Many high school girls coaches across the state are thrilled to have Neighbors back in Arkansas and in a position he calls his "dream job." Before becoming a college coach, Neighbors earned his stripes as a high school coach at several schools in Arkansas, including Bentonville and Cabot before he joined former women's coach Gary Blair at Arkansas as a graduate assistant.

"He's proven himself at every level, and he's an ambassador for the game of basketball," Fayetteville girls basketball coach Vic Rimmer said. "He does so much to help improve high school basketball and college basketball. He knows this state, and he knows the coaches. It may take a while to get the kids in to play the style he wants to play, but I think he's a terrific hire."

While Neighbors' personal relationships with Rimmer, Smith and many others remain strong, he also created a way to help impact thousands of coaches through a highly thought-of basketball newsletter that he produces.

"The last time I talked to him it was around 70,000 people in I don't know how many countries," said Smith, who's used those resources on numerous occasions. "It's just exploded."

Kimberly Jenkins, who played for Blair at Arkansas and is a two-time state champion as the girls basketball coach at Valley Springs, believes Neighbors will teach the little things to his players and excel at selling the Arkansas program.

"He's well-connected in the state and has spoken at our coach's association meetings. He's stayed involved," Jenkins said. "We've worked camps together. I've spoken with several former players, and we're all excited about this. He's paid his dues and worked hard to build programs. It will be fun to see how he builds this program back up."

Rimmer and Fayetteville will be sending one of their own to play for Neighbors and the Razorbacks next season. Grayce Spangler, a Lady Bulldogs senior, helped guide Fayetteville to its seventh state championship in school history in March -- the most of any girl's program in Arkansas. She signed with Arkansas during the early signing period.

Rimmer and Spangler both see a good fit with Neighbors.

"I'm excited. I watched him some at Washington," Spangler said. "I've never had a problem getting along with coaches or anything like that. I think he's a really good coach."

A player Neighbors will likely target in the 2018 recruiting class is Central Arkansas Christian junior Christyn Williams, the No. 2 rated player in her class by ESPN and the No. 1 guard in the class.

Williams has offers from the top women's programs in the country, including UConn, Baylor, Notre Dame, Tennessee and UCLA. Williams said she will listen to Neighbors' recruiting pitch but has said she still plans to play out of state.

"I hear he's a really great coach. He's shown he's a good coach," Williams said. "I think it will be really good for Arkansas' women's basketball program.

"Arkansas isn't the right fit for me, so I don't know if that will change my decision of putting them back on that list or not. I'll definitely listen to him and hear what he has to say. I just want to go out-of-state. Nothing against the program or anything like that."

The hire also earned high praise from the coach who Neighbors is replacing, former women's coach Jimmy Dykes.

"If I could have hand-picked the coach to take this team forward it would have been Mike Neighbors," Dykes said. "He understands how important the Razorbacks are to this entire state. He knows ball and has a great passion to teach it. He will be a great addition to the Razorback family."

Sports on 04/04/2017

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