Going back to the 1994-95 season, the Washington women’s basketball team had never completed a season with more than 23 wins.
When the UW hired Mike Neighbors to manage its women’s basketball program in April 2013, it was a plan for future success. The team had just locked in its first McDonald’s All-American recruit in Katie Collier, and future stars like Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor weren’t far behind on his radar of talent.
Just under four years later, Neighbors is leaving the Pacific Northwest and is headed back to his alma mater to serve as the University of Arkansas’ women’s basketball head coach.
“This is my dream job and everyone who knows me, knows that,” Neighbors said in a statement. “I grew up wanting to be a Razorback and then a Razorback coach and the four years I spent at Arkansas prepared me for this moment. It prepared me for my first job and it prepared me for the head coaching job at Washington four years ago. Now it has come full circle and I’m back at Arkansas.”
After notching 20 wins in his inaugural season at the helm in Montlake, and then tallying three straight seasons of at least 23 wins, the investment paid off. Neighbors aided the Huskies’ rise to national prominence from a state of mediocrity in many ways.
The Greenwood, Ark. native helped recruit the eventual top scorer in women’s college hoops as well as this last year’s leading rebounder. His leadership and fast-paced offensive strategies helped guide Washington to its first Final Four in program history in 2016, beating national powerhouses like Maryland and Stanford along the way. This season, the Huskies season ended in the Sweet Sixteen after a fourth quarter comeback from Mississippi State, which went on to end Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak last week.
Neighbors brought the UW through the ranks by creating the culture he thought would function best. From holding practice just once a week in 2016 — the extra time off the court helped improve his team’s GPA to 3.19, its highest in five years — to having team dinners inside his own home, the 48-year-old wanted to get the program to higher heights by his own methods.
Known as a good recruiter, Neighbors was a big reason behind junior guard Natalie Romeo’s transfer from Nebraska to Seattle, even after a stellar season in which she broke the Cornhusker record for most 3-pointers in a season.
“He’s really true to his word,” Romeo said during this last season. “He didn’t falsely advertise anything. He’s always treated us like adults.”
After spending two years as the team’s assistant coach, Neighbors compiled a record of 98-41, making him the third-winningest coach in Washington history.
Before he makes the move to Arkansas with his two children, Neighbors will have to pay $1 million to the UW to be able to leave the program for another head coaching position, per conditions of a buyout clause he signed last year, since his original contract lasted through the 2022-23 season. His new contract to coach in Fayetteville will pay him more than twice that annually for six years.
Reach reporter Jack Russillo at email@example.com. Twitter: @jackrussillo