April 24, 2013
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
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SEATTLE - Last weekend's news the Huskies had named Mike Neighbors as their new women's basketball coach looked, at first glance, like a conventional promotion of a top assistant to the head job.
There is absolutely nothing conventional about Mike Neighbors.
Not his life. Not his near death.
Not his career path, his hobbies. Nor just about any other stop on his way to landing what only recently became his dream job.
No wonder Kelsey Plum is remaining a Husky.
Plum -- who along with 2013-14 redshirt freshman Katie Collier are the only two high-school All-Americans to sign in the four-plus decades of UW women's basketball -- re-signed the necessarily NCAA paperwork with the UW compliance office on Wednesday. That ensures she will play at Washington this fall. UW had granted Plum's request for a release from her national letter of intent last week the day after popular Kevin McGuff left to lead Ohio State.
Neighbors may prove to be even more likeable. He is the reason Plum is remaining a Husky.
"There are a lot of people that love the game. There are a lot of people that coach the game. But Mike LIVES the game," Gary Blair, the 2011 national-championship coach at Texas A&M who is about to be enshrined in the women's basketball Hall of Fame, drawled to me Tuesday by phone from southeast Texas.
"He's one of the good guys. Mike deserves the opportunity."
Neighbors' two children, 16-year-old Abby and 11-year-old Alec, plus his mother Anna McBride, his stepfather Brownie, his girlfriend Amy Ratliff and her twin sister are all traveling across the country to attend the coach's introductory press conference Friday morning in Alaska Airlines Arena.
Director of Athletics Scott Woodward will officially introduce Neighbors as Washington's 10th women's basketball coach. Neighbors is supremely appreciative and humbled by UW choosing him so decisively. His hiring came just three days after McGuff left, and followed a whirlwind national search and hundreds of calls.
Woodward and the five-year contract starting at $350,000 for the coming season, increasing $20,000 per year through its end in March 2018, made it clear Neighbors was the Huskies' man. The man to continue the program's upward path following the first consecutive 20-win seasons since the mid-1990s.
"I mean, no one does national searches in three days and decides on a coach," Neighbors said Tuesday, in his native Arkansas drawl. "The athletic director here is so involved in this program, and the administration is so supportive. We all wanted to continue the momentum we have."
When I called Blair and mentioned Neighbors, I could almost hear the legendary southerner smile.
"I applaud Washington for hiring the right person - instead of going for the so-called `name' in the national search everyone gets so wrapped up in these days," Blair said.
He says he wants Neighbors by his side June 8 when he goes into the Hall of Fame "because he is like family to me."
"He's earned this chance."
It was Blair who gave Neighbors his first career break -- which was more like a nose dive off a cliff in the Arkansas Ozarks.
Neighbors took a $58,000-a-year pay cut from being a highly respected high-school basketball state-finalist coach and biology teacher in his state to become an assistant to Blair at the University of Arkansas in 1999.
That was a year after Neighbors had a heart attack -- at age 29. He had a second one when he was 38.
He's also endured a divorce with a wife he describes an excellent mother to their children to become perhaps the most well-known and widely respected assistant coach in women's college sports.
"I applaud Washington for hiring the right person - instead of going for the so-called `name' in the national search everyone gets so wrapped up in these days," Blair said.
"He gives back," Blair said. "I think he has revolutionized women's athletics, in the way of sharing information and ideas."
Throughout the year Neighbors publishes a newsletter for fellow coaches of anecdotes, drills, pearls of wisdom and motivation, industry news - you name it.
I just got added to the list - as subscriber number 65,356.
"In 39 countries and all 50 states," Neighbors says, proudly.
"From starting a newsletter on his own to that? That's unheard of," Blair said. "I mean, unheard of."
He's gained more than 23,000 subscribers in the two years since he arrived at UW from Xavier. Fellow hoops people send him flash drives in padded envelopes with return mailers, so they can present off the newsletters at clinics. A half dozen such packages were behind him on a table as we talked in his office.
Marquette men's coach Buzz Williams is a subscriber. So is Greg McDermott. The men's coach at Creighton, a hot name in the industry right now, called Neighbors on Monday.
"He uses it as an example a lot at his clinics," Neighbors said. "I can tell when he uses things from the newsletter at his clinics because all of a sudden I get a hundred requests to be added: `Hey, Coach McDermott said this is the coolest thing going.'
"A lot of people do it now. The bottom line is we've been doing it longer."
Neighbors started the newsletter in the mid-1990s when he was the basketball coach and a biology teacher at Bentonville High School in northwest Arkansas. That is the headquarters city for Walmart.
Mel Redman, Walmart's senior vice president for operations then, had an initiative to get computers and internet access installed in public schools in his company's home region. Neighbors had coached Redman's son in Bentonville.
"Our school district was one of the first in the country to get the internet because Walmart bought us computers," Neighbors said of the home-grown Arkansas retailer, which by 1990 had become America's top-selling store. "Then they made us come in every Saturday for a month to get trained on Pegasus, Microsoft Word and Publisher and Excel."
Neighbors was in his late 20's and about to start a family.
"It was torture," he said. "We thought it was a waste of time. You can imagine a public-school teacher and coach using their Saturdays to do computer training.
But soon he was trading coaching philosophies electronically with Bentonville's boys hoops coach and thought "this email is pretty cool."
Soon, Walmart was buying computers and installing the internet for three other area school districts. Neighbors' circle of connected coaches with which to share philosophies every Thursday instantly tripled.
"Obviously we didn't do much teaching," he joked. "I feel sorry for that year's biology crop."
Almost 20 years later, Neighbors' notes are nationally renowned. They include inbounds plays, packets he's acquired at clinics such as on Jim Boeheim's matchup zone defense at Syracuse, an article on NFL coach Tom Coughlin's new book "Earn the Right to Win," videos of UW's drills, even quotes from his grandfather, "Papa" Neighbors PapaNeighborsDay7.pdf (70 KB).
Neighbors has also written on the great UW staffer George Hickman georgehickmanpiece.pdf (146 KB).
"I'll tell you what it's given us: everywhere we play or everywhere I go around basketball someone's on it - `Hey, I'm on your newsletter.' So it's an exposure thing," he says. "We talk about growing our game. It's just sharing. And it doesn't cost a dime. Never charged a penny for it."
THE DIET COKE LESSON
Like a clipboard, Neighbors carries two things with him from his first two years as a new college assistant under Blair.
"That being told no is going to happen a bunch. You have to be OK with that as an assistant," he says.
"And: be the head coach of whatever they ask you to do."
He was a well-respected high school coach, having turned Bentonville around from 1-24 to the Arkansas state championships in just two years. After he made the `97 state finals, he went to Cabot High and led it to another appearance in the state tournament. Along the way, he estimates he applied for a hundred college jobs over five years.
The one he took in 1999: Going from $72,000 a year in northwest Arkansas, with a wife and toddler, to a salary of $14,000 working as the director of basketball operations for Blair at the University of Arkansas.
Even Blair tried to talk him out of it. But being a college coach was Neighbors' dream. If this was his way in, so be it.
One of the first tasks he had at Arkansas came when Neighbors began noticing how Blair always had a Diet Coke within arm's reach.
"So to become the Gary Blair Diet Coke guy," Neighbors said. "I said, `Coach, do you want it in a can or in a bottle? Or do you want a fountain drink?'"
Blair said it would be great if he could get it in a cup.
"Do you want crushed ice, or cubed ice, or pellet ice?" the new assistant replied.
Before those Razorbacks played road games, Neighbors researched whether the host was a Pepsi school or a Coca-Cola school by calling each arena. If it was a Pepsi-contracted school he needed an off-site, plan B to get Blair his Diet Coke. He then ensured the soda was packed in the bag the head coach took to the game.
"I was his `Diet Coke guy,' so I tried to do the best I could at it," Neighbors says now, shrugging.
He soon graduated to increasing responsibilities, with camps then scouting videos. After two years he was ready to be a full-time assistant, at Tulsa. Then at Colorado. Then, in 2007, with McGuff at Xavier - always with Blair's lessons in mind.
"That's what I learned from Blair; there's a lot to coaching," Neighbors said. "Everybody sees the end of the movie, the games. They don't see the beginnings.
"He was the one, no question. I got a real clear snapshot of what college coaching was like those first two years with him."
I asked Neighbors if he ever asked himself in those early, below-minimum-wage years, "What the hell did I give up? What am I doing?"
"About every day," he said.
I haven't even mentioned Neighbors' lists yet.
"Hey, of all the things people want to talk about, that's the one that stirs the most conversation," he said.
He readily pulls out of a desk drawer in his office a computer-printed list of 1,074 favorite movies. A Few Good Men is No. 1, followed by The Hunt for Red October. Silence of the Lambs is No. 3. His first sports movie is Hoosiers, of course. It's ranked fourth.
Dumb and Dumber is on there, on No. 250. I scoffed at Mad Max even being ranked at all, at 447th.
"You didn't like that? It was good!" Neighbors said.
See, on a visit Neighbors' office you may talk basketball. Or you may talk Walmart, Diet Coke, blood flow in arteries - or, heck, The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He has that cult favorite film ranked 450th.
In last place on his list? He writes in No. 1,075, on the spot there at his desk: Mamma Mia.
"Loved, loved, loved the play," he says. "Absolutely the worst movie. Ever."
He watches the films on his iPad on planes or in hotels while traveling, or during any other time away from the game. He bases his rankings on this criterion: if one movie on his list was on TBS and another was on at the same time on TNT, which one would he watch?
His compilation has enough renown that the people who run IMDb, self-proclaimed as "the world's most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content," created a site for his films: http://www.imdb.com/rg/s/1/list/V1swWb2I6Ao/
He's also in the process of compiling a top 1,000 list for music. He is finding that has been much more difficult "because music has so much to do with your mood."
"But I don't think my top song will change anytime soon," he said.
That's Sweet Child o' Man, by Guns N' Roses.
"Tell Duff McKagan that, and that I'd like to jam with him," Neighbors said of the 49-year-old Seattle native, a bassist for Guns N' Roses in the 1980s and `90s who attends many Husky football games.
The coach has 117 George Strait songs on the music list. His favorite of those, by the way, is Amarillo by Morning.
FOUR STENTS. ONE UNIQUE PERSPECTIVE
Back in Arkansas in 1998 Neighbors played five pickup games one morning; the 29-year-old coach had won a Dr Pepper bet with one of his high school players for being able to dunk.
He came home to rest. While on the couch, with then toddler Abby asleep on his chest, he began having excruciating pain in his teeth. When he tried to sit up he fell to his knees with severe chest pain.
His wife called 911. The EMTs measured his blood pressure at 120/80, almost perfect. He was in the best shape of his life. They couldn't figure out, thought it was perhaps angina.
Because the ambulance was already there, Neighbors asked to go the emergency room. He has since learned intense pain above the shoulders is a warning of a possible heart attack for those already at risk for it.
"I can still remember looking at that little tiny window in the ambulance, with my ex-wife and my daughter in the van following us, and these cars are just zooming by. We are, like, in the slow lane," Neighbors said. "I said, `Hey guys, could we hit the lights or something?'"
He had two stents put in his chest to increase the flow of blood to his heart - "and coached the next Friday," he says.
Six years ago Neighbors was on the court for his first day on McGuff's new staff at Xavier. He was trying to be macho, impressing upon the Musketeers how intense their workouts were going to be. He was holding a blocking pad off which players were to bang for prime position in the lane.
A tired but motivated Neighbors didn't like how his new players were hitting the pad.
"If y'all don't want to hit any harder than this we can go do something else," Neighbors told them.
The next person in line was Ta'Shia Phillips, a fierce, 6-foot-6 dominator who would become the No. 5 rebounder in NCAA history. Phillips' determined, thudding blow sent her new coach from the foul line onto his back along the base line, 15 feet away.
"I got up and yelled, `THAT'S what I'm talkin' about!'" he says now. "But when I got to `I'm talking about,' that's when I felt that pain in my teeth again."
He knew he was having heart attack number two.
Turns out, Neighbors' body doesn't break down plaque in the arteries the way yours and mine do. It builds up far quicker inside him, restricting blood flow to his heart. Doctors have told him a third heart attack isn't out of the question, so trainer Jenn Stueckle brings an automated external defibrillator for Neighbors everywhere the Huskies go.
Two more stents and six years later, Neighbors is following doctors' advice to stay in good shape and eat wisely.
"That won't improve my longevity of life, but my quality of life," he says, looking trim in a Washington Basketball workout shirt over long sleeves and sweatpants.
"It's a genetic thing you can't fix without a new heart."
The heart attacks changed his outlook on what - and who -- is most important to him.
"It changed everything, immediately," he said. "I was a high-school coach and I knew right away I was going to take a $58,000 pay cut to chase my dream. I wasn't going to wait around.
"A lot of my decisions since have been based on what's best for my family, my kids, knowing that you aren't guaranteed the next game, the next practice -- anything."
Last Friday morning, UW senior associate director of athletics Shondell Reed presented him with the contract offer to be the Huskies' next coach. Neighbors loved the terms, loved the opportunity to finally become a head coach. His dream job had arrived.
But he hadn't yet discussed the move with his dream girl.
Woodward and Reed waited six hours for Neighbors to sign the memorandum of agreement. He wouldn't agree to the deal until he talked to the daughter whose Looney Tunes ties he used to wear when she bought them for dad a dozen years ago, while he was dragging her from Arkansas to Tulsa to Colorado and back. The coach's daughter was in school, then her father couldn't reach her on the phone because Abby was in cheerleading practice back in Bentonville.
"She was THE call," he says. "She's sacrificed a lot for me over the years with the moves. She learned to eat pork and beans and bologna sandwiches just like I did.
"My little guy, he doesn't remember all of it. I've always been a college coach to him. When I asked him he said, `Dad, do they have a Lego store there? ... OK, I'm good with it.'"
The Huskies are, too.
Leading scorer Jazmine Davis, the 2012 Pac-12 freshman of the year, jumped into Neighbors' arms Friday night when the Huskies gathered at Conibear Shellhouse for the news he was their head man.
"Coach Neighbors is absolutely the perfect coach for UW," said Kristi Kingma, the Huskies' departing senior captain. "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 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."
For sure, he will do it in a way only he can.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.