Matt Jones is the online sports director for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A double graduate of the University of Arkansas, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
Life comes in bunches for new dad Neighbors
Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors is shown during a game against Tennessee on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Neighbors is a movie buff.
The Arkansas women’s basketball coach has an IMDB page that ranks 1,078 movies, complete with every genre imaginable.
But nowhere on that list is a storyline quite like Neighbors’ real-life experience as a father the past five weeks. He has celebrated the birth of his third child, seen his oldest son finish high school and walked his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day.
“It’s just kind of crazy how it all happened,” said Abby Rea, Neighbors’ daughter. “Each kid of his is going into a new phase of their life.”
For Rea, the most surprising chapter was the birth of her younger brother, Bowen, who was born May 14 to Neighbors and his girlfriend, Jayci Stone.
Rea, who is 24, said she was initially taken aback by the news.
“I was definitely shocked, for sure,” she said. “I didn’t know that was in the talks or anything like that.
“It’s kind of weird that I have a month-old brother. Obviously because we just got married, later on down the line we’ll think about having kids. Just thinking that my child could be super close in age to my youngest brother, it always makes me think back to the movie Father of the Bride.”
Like Steve Martin in the 1995 movie Father of the Bride II, Neighbors became a father again later in life, at the age of 51. His friends have been giving him plenty of good-natured ribbing since the birth of his new son.
“I have heard them all,” Neighbors said. “If anyone’s got one, feel free to try it on me. But I’m sure I’ve heard it.”
In one of the more humorous tales of new fatherhood, Neighbors said he has a friend who thinks his new child is his grandson.
“He’s been posting on social media and all of my friends have piled on and we’ve kept the story going and we’re going to see how long it takes my buddy to figure out it’s not my grandson,” Neighbors said.
There was also a moment at a retail store when Neighbors attempted to buy three containers of baby wipes in preparation for his son’s arrival. He failed to see a sign that informed customers to limit purchases to only one item.
“At the checkout, they let me know that those were allocated items and I could only have one,” he said. “I said, ‘Hey, sorry, I didn’t see the sign.’ Then the checkout person said, ‘Yes,’ and, ‘Sir, we’re actually trying to save these for people who have babies.’ I took a deep breath and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a baby due next week, so it’s a good thing I got here when I did.’ ”
Neighbors said he and his staff haven’t worked any less since the covid-19 pandemic ended their season before the Razorbacks could play in the NCAA Tournament in March, but how work has changed the past few months has been beneficial with so much going on in the life of his children, in particular the newborn.
“I’ve got to spend as much time with him in a month than I did the other two combined by a factor of 10,” Neighbors said. “I think we should make it a mandatory deal now that when you have a baby, you have to stay home a month.”
It also helped planning for his daughter’s wedding June 6. She married Butch Rea, an assistant baseball coach at Northeastern (Okla.) State.
“It couldn’t have been better,” Neighbors said. “I was able to be involved and I was able to involve people who wouldn’t normally be able to be involved. I had former assistant coaches who were able to come for the wedding who wouldn’t have been able to come.”
True to his love of movies, Neighbors said he watched Wedding Planner, Wedding Singer, My Best Friend’s Wedding and Runaway Bride.
“I went through all of them to make sure I had handled all the possible scenarios that could come up,” he said.
As for the wedding day?
“There was probably a pool going around — in fact, I know there was — on when and if I would cry,” Neighbors said. “I didn’t make it past the first look.”
“He was a baby the whole day,” said Rea, who added her father cried three times in all.
“I told all my friends, especially those involved in sports, that you can be around a lot of emotional days, but there is nothing like that moment when you see your daughter in a wedding dress,” Neighbors said.
Moving back to Arkansas in 2017 allowed Neighbors a chance to spend more time with his two oldest children, who lived with their mother in Rogers while he coached as an assistant at Xavier and Washington from 2007-13. Neighbors was hired as Washington’s head coach in 2013 and coached four more seasons there.
“I think we were really excited because he had taken that sacrifice for us to make our lives a little better. He left to financially support us throughout our life,” said Rea, who was a UA senior when her father was hired by the Razorbacks. “That was definitely hard on him and us.
“Having him back and being able to go get lunch and go get dinner, or my dad going to play video games with my brother [Alec] and him be super close in distance — Washington was really far away. We definitely loved that we were able to rekindle those relationships … and build on them.
“My dad was in town when my brother got to start driving. That changed a lot because he was able to go see my dad whenever he wanted. Alec is going to the University of Arkansas, so they can just extend their bond more when he starts going to college.”
Neighbors said he has always made it a priority in his program to be available to family.
“I’ve been a head coach for seven years and one thing I’ve done every year is I tell [assistant coaches] to take two hours, and they tell me which two hours we’re going to be at the office together,” Neighbors said. “After that, it’s show up to practice and do your job.
“I can do a lot of my job from the golf course, or while out vintage store hunting. [Assistant coach] Todd Schaeffer can do a lot of his job while out pitching in the backyard. [Assistant] Chantel Osahor can do a lot of her job while she’s playing guitar. [Assistant] Pauline Love can do a lot of her job while she’s gaming and connecting that way.
“I think [coronavirus changes have] been an easier transition for us because of that. I do hope that other people are learning that you don’t have to be within proximity of your desk to stay connected. Distance doesn’t mean disconnect. … I think that’s a huge part of our success. Basketball is important to us, but there are a lot of other things we try to find a rhythm of.”
This weekend, Neighbors will celebrate Father’s Day with his children after one of the most eventful months of his 24 years of fatherhood.
“I would have never thought,” Rea said, “that within the span of a month or two, I’d be getting married, my brother graduates high school and starts a new chapter in his life. I’m starting a new chapter in my life, and then obviously my dad is starting a new chapter in his life by having Bowen.
“I feel like it’s pretty life changing.”
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