April 19, 2013
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE -- It didn't take long for the Huskies to find the person to continue their momentum in women's basketball. And they didn't have to go far.
He was already here.
Washington has hired top assistant Mike Neighbors as its new women's basketball coach, three days after Kevin McGuff suddenly took a lucrative offer to lead Ohio State. It's a move the players were hoping for, for continuity and familiarity. They found out early Friday evening in a team meeting at UW's Conibear Shellhouse, following a team weight-lifting session and then dinner in University Village.
Washington will formally introduce Neighbors as its 10th women's basketball coach at a press conference next week, with the day and time still to be determined.
Neighbors, a 44-year-old native of Greenwood, Ark., signed a memorandum of understanding Friday evening for a five-year contract starting at $350,000 in guaranteed compensation for the 2013-14 season.
"I'm elated," Neighbors said, moments after signing the agreement that calls for his pay to increase by $20,000 each season, through the $430,000 he is scheduled to earn in the final year of the deal ending March 31, 2018.
"When Kevin left, the first words out of my mouth were `I want to be the head coach of the basketball team at the University of Washington - this particular team, these players, the recruits we have coming in.'
"When I got into this business 13 years ago, Washington wasn't one of my `dream jobs.' My dream jobs were regional. But when I got here to Seattle with Kevin two years ago, to this program and this university, this became my dream job.
"And now here I am."
Director of Athletics Scott Woodward and Shondell Reed, Washington's senior associate AD, fielded queries and calls from across the country during a whirlwind search to replace McGuff, who in two seasons revived UW's recruiting and on-court success with the first consecutive 20-win seasons since the mid-1990s.
In the end, continuity was key.
"The more we looked, the more we realized our best candidate was right here on our campus," Woodward said. "Mike Neighbors is ready to continue what he and Coach McGuff and the staff have started. I want to continue the trajectory the program is on, in wins and losses, in how we are recruiting, and in academic performance. In my mind, Mike was the chief operating officer of the effort that started this trajectory.
"Hiring Mike shows we remain committed to Husky women's basketball returning to national prominence. We think Mike is ready, and that he will continue that momentum."
He was the players' choice once McGuff left Tuesday. And they were as pumped as their new coach at Friday night's news.
"Coach `Neighb's ready," Huskies rising senior guard Mercedes Wetmore said of Neighbors becoming a head coach for the first time. "He is the guy to lead this program into a national powerhouse.
"We wanted him to be the guy to come in and lead us. It's the perfect fit. We are motivated. We are excited. And we are picking up right where we left off."
That's exactly the idea.
Neighbors, who came to UW from Xavier with McGuff in April 2011, also gets the same incentive bonuses McGuff had at Washington: $25,000 for winning the Pac-12 regular-season championship; $20,000 for winning the Pac-12 tournament; $15,000 for making the NCAA tournament with incremental bonuses for advancing; plus one month's base pay for an annual team academic progress rate of 980 or higher, as defined by the NCAA.
"It's been a crazy week, and our fast-paced search since Kevin left gave us many impressive candidates," said Reed, whom Woodward credited for leading the search. "We ultimately decided we value the ability of Mike, (assistant) Kevin Morrison and this entire staff to continue our program's rise to the top of the Pac-12.
"The more we looked, the more confident we became that we had the right people in Mike and Kevin."
Morrison and assistant Adia Barnes have been asked to stay on as Neighbors' assistants.
Including Washington's recent signings of Katie Collier and Kelsey Plum, Neighbors has been involved in inking eight McDonald's national high school All-Americans while as an assistant and lead recruiter at UW, Xavier, Arkansas - his alma mater - Colorado and Tulsa.
"The more we looked, the more we realized our best candidate was right here on our campus," Woodward said. "Mike Neighbors is ready to continue what he and Coach McGuff and the staff have started."
He has been chiefly responsible for the development of Washington's dynamic guards, including Wetmore and Jazmine Davis, the all-conference point guard and the Pac-12 freshman of the year in 2012.
Sharpshooter Kristi Kingma, the team captain who just finished her UW career, says Neighbors is her favorite among all the coaches she's ever had.
"Coach Neighbors is absolutely the perfect coach for UW," Kingma said Friday night. "Playing for him for the last two years not only made me a better player but a better person and made me fall in love with the game all over again.
"He fully understands how to challenge his players to get the best out of them and his players, in turn, want to play hard for him. He has truly been my favorite coach I have ever played for and I know he will keep UW headed in the right direction and competing for championships very quickly.
"What an awesome day to be a Husky!"
Davis has scored more points in her first two seasons at UW (1,113) than anyone in program history. She has also been hoping all week that Neighbors got the job.
So has Lorenzo Romar.
"Coach McGuff and his staff have done so well these last two years, the last thing you want to do is start over. And Mike is one of the most organized and driven coaches I've ever seen," the Huskies men's coach said Friday by telephone from Los Angeles.
"He's in the office all hours. You talk about a guy who eats, sleeps and drinks basketball ... with a little music thrown in, I might add."
Yes, the energetic Neighbors is a music and movie buff. He constantly updates spreadsheets on his top 1,000 films and songs as he sees and hears more. Classic rock is his favorite.
At the top of his lists: A Few Good Men, plus Sweet Child o' Mine by 1980s rockers Guns N' Roses.
Before coming to Washington, Neighbors worked as an assistant to McGuff at Xavier for four seasons. He helped build the program to a national power that included a trip to the Elite Eight. During the 2009-10 season, the Musketeers posted a 30-4 record, including 14-0 in the Atlantic-10 Conference. Xavier finished that season as the No. 5-ranked team in the country, falling a last-second shot short of the Final Four.
Neighbors was named one of basketballscoop.com's "Rising Stars" in 2009, an award that recognizes some of the best assistant coaches in the business.
Eight of the college players Neighbors has coached have been drafted into the WNBA, including three who have won WNBA Championships. At each of his coaching stops through Xavier, he has helped develop either the No. 1 or No. 2 scorers in program history. He is a regular speaker at coaching conventions and clinics around the nation, and his weekly newsletter is popular with coaches at all levels. Neighbors received his bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas in 1993. Following his graduation, Neighbors was a director of basketball operations for the Razorbacks' women's basketball program. He worked for legendary coach Gary Blair, who won the NCAA championship in 2011 with Texas A&M. Before moving into the college coaching, Neighbors was a highly successful head coach in the Arkansas girls' high school basketball. He took a 1-24 Bentonville team to the state championships in just two years.
Neighbors has two children, daughter Abby (16) and son Alec (10). He lives in Seattle - still.
"The system will not change. You won't have to change the players' style of play," Romar said. "The women, they already know the program.
"As a Husky, I'm excited we promoted Mike."