Neighbors accepted challenge when taking 'dream job'

By: Dudley E. Dawson
Published: Saturday, February 2, 2019
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors talks to player Amber Ramirez during practice Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Fayetteville.
Photo by J.T. Wampler
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors talks to player Amber Ramirez during practice Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, in Fayetteville.

— When Greenwood native Mike Neighbors left Washington to take over the Arkansas women’s basketball program on April 2, 2017, he knew exactly what he was facing.

Although Arkansas had some successful seasons under current Texas A&M head coach Gary Blair, the program has never had a consistent record of success in the Southeastern Conference.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize that Arkansas has had only had two winning records in 28 seasons of being in the SEC,” said Neighbors, a former Arkansas assistant under Blair from 1999-2001 and Susie Gardner in 2006-2007. “So when everyone talks about getting back to where it was, I want to take it where it hasn’t been, and that starts with winning in the SEC.”

Arkansas (16-6, 5-3 SEC) faces a tough challenge on Super Bowl Sunday with No. 16 South Carolina (15-5, 7-1) visiting for a 4 p.m. game at Bud Walton Arena.

The Razorbacks’ four-game winning streak was snapped with a 80-72 home loss to Georgia on Thursday.

“I think we are a lot ahead of where I thought we would be in the big picture,” Neighbors said, "but as far as the league race, let’s be realistic, our five wins are over the bottom five teams, even if we are not used to seeing Tennessee in that group, and I don’t think they will finish there.

“I love the fact that we have won the games that we, quote, were supposed to and knock a few people off that people didn’t think we would. So I would say we are a little ahead, but the reality of it is our next six opponents are going to be better opponents than our first eight ones were.”

Neighbors, a 1993 graduate of Arkansas, had long prepared for the job and jumped at it when he had the chance, leaving Washington after taking the Huskies to three straight NCAA Tournaments, including a Final Four appearance in 2016. He had a 98-41 record in four seasons with the Huskies.

“I had watched every Arkansas game for the last 10 years because I wanted to know everything about it because it was the job I always wanted,” Neighbors said. “So I knew exactly what was going on here.”

The first day on the job, he met with the eight players that were remaining from former coach Jimmy Dykes’ roster.

“My first goal was basically to resign those eight players that were in the room,” Neighbors said. “We were never going to refer to them as somebody else’s kids or not our kids or whatever; they were ours and we wanted them around."

Two did not stay, including McDonald’s All-American Aaliyah Wilson, who transferred to Texas A&M.

“So that left us with six other kids who to be honest really did not have any idea what they were getting into,” Neighbors said. “…I resigned them in kind of a symbolic move. I wanted them to know that we wanted them there.

“My staff and I walked upstairs and went right to work knowing that we needed to add some junior college kids because at that point in time we didn’t have enough people to play. We were going to have to start working on a 2-2 zone or something.

“We had to find what I thought was 10 kids to play. We had two incoming freshmen…We knew the reality of what was happening. None of those kids on our board had another SEC offer; not one. But we had to bring in kids that were SEC athletic to give us a chance to build around these kids that had not been recruited by other SEC schools.”

One of the nation’s best high school players was going to be a senior in Central Arkansas Christian’s Christyn Williams, but that was a lost cause because she was headed to Connecticut.

“We wanted to see if we could get in to see her,” Neighbors said. “We got her on the phone and asked if there was any chance, but she was headed elsewhere.”

Arkansas finished Neighbors' first season with a 13-18 overall record and 3-13 record in the SEC.

“We had to establish a culture and identity for better or worse,” Neighbors said. “We are not going to come in there and do things to try and slow things down. Could we have won a game or two more last year if we had slowed it down and walked it up the floor? No question.

“But that is not the step you have to take to move your program down the line. We told the kids, 'This is how we are going to play and while the outcome might not be rewarding, just trust the process and watch what we are going to do.'"

Arkansas has added a McDonald’s All-American in TCU transfer guard Amber Ramirez and four 2019 signees in Minnesota prep center Destinee Oberg (6-3), Springdale guard Marquesha Davis (6-0), Lawton (Okla.) Eisenhower forward Ginger Reece (5-10) and Frederick, Md., guard Makayla Daniels (5-7).

Neighbors also has a pair of 2020 pledges in Del City, Okla., guard Rylee Langerman (5-9) and Madison County (Ala.) Academy post Destinee McGhee (6-2), who is ranked as the seventh-best player at her position in the class and the 60th-best player overall by ESPN.

“We are getting players in here and they are going to help us continue to make this climb, but it will be because of the ones who were here when we got here and they put in the work,” Neighbors said. “It’s been fun.”

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