When I was hired: Mike Neighbors went all in on his dream job

By: Scottie Bordelon
Published: Wednesday, May 20, 2020
Arkansas women's basketball coach Mike Neighbors, right, and athletics director Jeff Long lead a Hog call during Neighbors' introductory press conference on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas women's basketball coach Mike Neighbors, right, and athletics director Jeff Long lead a Hog call during Neighbors' introductory press conference on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Mike Neighbors remembers well the day the Arkansas women's basketball job came open in March 2017.

Then the women’s basketball coach at Washington, Neighbors was aboard the Huskies' team bus en route to KeyArena in Seattle for the team’s matchup with Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament.

In three seasons at Arkansas, Jimmy Dykes had a 43-49 record and was 16-36 against SEC teams.

Later that day, Washington's run in the conference tournament ended earlier than Neighbors anticipated. Oregon defeated Washington 70-69 despite a game-high 34 points from Huskies star Kelsey Plum and 27 rebounds from Chantel Osahor, who is now an assistant coach for Neighbors.

“It’s always been the dream job,” Neighbors said of Arkansas. “You hear it’s open and you’re trying to focus on the game you’re getting ready to play. We got beat that night, and now you’ve got 10 days between then and the (NCAA Tournament) selection show.

When I Was Hired

This is the third in a multi-part series detailing the backstory to head coaches being hired at Arkansas.

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“So it was under consideration for a couple of weeks there.”

Language in Neighbors’ contract at the time required him to inform Washington's school administration if he spoke with another program about a potential coaching position. He was upfront with Washington higher-ups.

“I said, ‘I don’t know if they’re going to call me, but if they call me, I’m talking,’” Neighbors said.

Between the March 3 loss to Oregon and the March 13 selection show, Neighbors did not speak with Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long. Instead, he spoke to then-senior deputy athletics director Julie Cromer Peoples, who accepted the AD position at Ohio University last fall.

He greatly appreciated her handling of the situation. There was no back and forth between the two sides, Neighbors said, until Washington lost.

“She was awesome. She was unbelievably good,” he added. “She said, ‘I know you’ve got bigger things to do. Let’s pay attention to what’s going on here and when the appropriate time comes, hey, you give me a call.’ That was it.

“It made me feel very comfortable that you could go focus on your current team and not be worried about having to apply for another job while you were on your current job. That was really important. The fact that they did that, it was huge.”

With a 27-5 record, Washington earned a No. 3 seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and won its first two games at home, beating Montana State and Oklahoma handily. Mississippi State was up next in the Sweet 16 in Oklahoma City.

Once Neighbors and his staff finalized the game plan for the Bulldogs, he told his team, which advanced to the Final Four the previous season, to pack four sets of clothes for the trip. His plan was to travel to Oklahoma City, win and continue south to Dallas, site of the Final Four.

He reached out to Cromer Peoples, telling her they at least needed to talk after Washington’s time in Oklahoma was complete.

“I packed a bag knowing I was going to have an opportunity probably - hopefully - to talk to those guys,” said Neighbors, a 1993 University of Arkansas graduate and Greenwood native. “So we come over, lose to Mississippi State. It was Saturday when we got beat and we finished up with what we needed to do with our current team.

“They started heading back and some of my family drove me over (to Fayetteville) and we met with (Arkansas) on Sunday.”

Neighbors went all in. He told himself he was not going to play coy or let ego get in the way during the process and potentially miss out on an opportunity that may not come back around.

He did keep things close to the vest with those in his orbit despite a steady stream of inquiries regarding whether or not he was going to take the Arkansas job. As much as he envisioned accepting the position, he had to make sure it wasn’t an impossible task.

Boyd Shelton, who coached at Bentonville High School from 1984-98, was one of the few people Neighbors did communicate with in that period of time. In 1993-94, Neighbors, fresh of out college, got his start as an assistant under Shelton with the Tigers’ boys basketball team.

Shelton, now retired and living in Jonesboro, saw then that Neighbors was passionate about the game and owned an innate ability to relate to people from all walks of life. He says it was obvious, too, that one day landing the Arkansas job was Neighbors’ mission.

“He wanted to come to Arkansas for many reasons,” Shelton added. “You’ve got family members there, that’s where he graduated, and he started right down the road with us. We talked about him possibly coming to Arkansas.

“I just encouraged him to keep hanging in there and eventually it would happen. And it did.”

The week after Washington’s season ended, Neighbors traveled to the Final Four. He soon departed, flying from Dallas to Seattle, where he met with his team to break the news: He was leaving for Arkansas.

He had a large buyout at Washington that he had to pay - $990,000 - but it was worth it, he said. Quickly, Neighbors returned to the airport and flew on a commercial redeye back to Arkansas.

On April 3, 2017, he was announced as the ninth women’s basketball coach at his alma mater. Arkansas has won 59 games in his first three seasons, the Razorbacks were SEC Tournament runner-up in 2019 and were bound for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years in 2020 before the season was cut short due to concerns over the coronavirus.

Neighbors has had preliminary discussions with Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek about extending his contract that runs through April 2023.

“The timing (was right) with family and friends, my daughter, Abby, was already in school here,” he said. “My son, Alec, was getting ready to start high school, my parents are getting a little bit older. I’ve said this before: I was worried that whoever got the job was going to do it and I’d never get the chance again.

“I wanted to get started so fast. I wanted to start from the time I walked out of Bud Walton Arena after we met with the committee on that Sunday. Everything turned from what if to why not?”

Neighbors recalls that his introductory press conference in the Basketball Performance Center on April 4 was a bit of a show. If he had had it his way, it would have been a small, simple gathering around a single microphone. But he was convinced after talking with Long and Cromer Peoples that the program needed a jolt of energy as they stepped into a new era.

With his grandfather’s red Razorbacks hat in one hand and a book signed by Frank Broyles in the other, Neighbors spoke humbly to a crowd that included administration, fans, his mother, aunts and uncles, high school teammates and college roommates.

For Shelton it was a precious moment in time seeing his one-time assistant coach achieve a long-sought dream.

“I knew it would take Mike a few years to develop that program into being competitive in the SEC, because the SEC is such a strong conference,” Shelton said. “I also thought given time that he would do that because Mike was a great recruiter because parents believe him. He’s believable. He’s real.

“When he comes into a parent’s home and he talks to them, when he leaves, they’ll think, ‘This guy is real.’”

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