April 26, 2013
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE -- Mike Neighbors was putting his 16-year-old daughter Abby and 11-year-son Alec in a dual bear hug inside the Founder's Club at Alaska Airlines Arena.
A few feet away, Talia Walton walked up to Scott Woodward and Shondell Reed and gave each a hug of her own.
"Thank you," UW's second-leading scorer said to Washington's director of athletics and its senior associate AD. "I just had to say that."
Appreciation for maintaining the program's momentum was the overriding theme Friday to UW's formal introduction of Neighbors as its 10th women's basketball head coach. Continuity was the reason the Huskies had decided seven days earlier to promote Neighbors, Kevin McGuff's top assistant, to his first head job.
Neighbors has agreed to a five-year contract paying him $350,000 this first season with raises of $20,000 per year through March 31, 2018. He and McGuff, now the head man at Ohio State, just got done leading the Huskies to their first consecutive, 20-win seasons since the mid-1990s.
Judging by the energy and celebration surrounding Neighbors Friday, that continuity is flowing just fine.
"Momentum, that's what we are going to try to keep capturing," Neighbors said.
The new coach announced assistants Kevin Morrison and Adia Barnes are remaining with the Huskies. Neighbors has given Morrison a promoted title of associate head coach. Barnes, a 1994 WNBA champion player with the Seattle Storm, is adding more recruiting responsibilities. Neighbors has hired Fred Castro to be his third assistant. Castro just finished his second season as a recruiting coordinator and assistant at Tulsa and will arrive next week.
Neighbors also confirmed all three of the program's recruits for the coming season have renewed their commitments to play for the Huskies: Kelsey Plum, Chantel Osahor and Brianna Ruiz.
Washington had granted Plum, the McDonald's High School All-America from Southern California, a release from her national letter of intent last week the day after McGuff abruptly left for a multimillion deal at Ohio State. Plum signed her financial-aid agreement to stay with UW on Wednesday, because of her faith in Neighbors.
"That's a huge momentum-keeper," said Neighbors, who in the last year of recruiting has formed a tight bond with Plum, the 5-foot-8 point guard and California state player of the year from Poway.
All Huskies underclassmen are also staying. As Walton's hug to the AD and the senior administrator who led last week's whirlwind national coaching search demonstrated, the players are pumped Neighbors is staying to continue what he and McGuff began two years ago.
"Mission number one is already done: keeping everyone here around me. We've kept the band together," Neighbors said during his 30-minute introduction in which the Arkansas native was himself - glib, genuine and sincere.
"I think I have a pretty clear picture of what we need to do and the people I need to recruit to get us on that top half of the Pac-12, to get that (first-round conference tournament) bye - and to win the thing.
"We have every piece that we need. Right here."
Friday, that included his children plus Neighbors' mother Anna McBride, his stepfather Brownie, his girlfriend Amy Ratliff and her twin sister. They all traveled from Arkansas and Kentucky to witness Neighbors realizing his dream of becoming a college head coach.
That dream began in 1999 when he took a $58,000-per-year pay cut, to $14,000 annually, to be an assistant and "Diet Coke guy" for Hall-of-Fame coach Gary Blair at Arkansas http://www.gohuskies.com/sports/w-baskbl/spec-rel/042413aab.html .
Neighbors, 44, has been McGuff's top assistant for the last six seasons. The first four came at Xavier. Woodward likes to say the organized, nationally respected Neighbors has been the CEO of Washington's program under McGuff these last two years.
The new coach thanked McGuff for giving him added, head-coach responsibilities. Last year, McGuff was off recruiting in Sweden and left the team for Neighbors to run the team through practices. The new head man said that was the first time his dream seemed to be nearing the reality it just became.
Neighbors inherits a team that appears loaded. Leading scorer Jazmine Davis, the all-conference guard and Pac-12 freshman of the year two seasons ago, returns. So do the dynamic Walton and rising senior leader Mercedes Wetmore. Plum and redshirt freshman Katie Collier, who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery, will be making their Huskies debuts. They are the first two McDonald's All-Americans signed in the program's history.
Asked how different his Huskies will look this fall compared to McGuff's two teams that reached the Women's National Invitation Tournament, Neighbors joked his players will come onto the floor 22 minutes before each tipoff instead of 23 and will wear white socks instead of purple. He said Morrison and Barnes will move one whole seat down the bench.
"Massive changes," he deadpanned.
The point was clear: The reason Neighbors was promoted was to keep things mostly as-is. That is to say, on a rising track to Pac-12 and national prominence.
"We had a program that for the past two seasons took major steps to get to the national stage and compete in the right way and right trajectory that we like. And we want that momentum to continue," Woodward said. "`Coach Neghbs,' as the kids call him, was the leader we wanted to continue in that trajectory."
Neighbors writes a weekly coaches' newsletter he publishes throughout the year. As of Wednesday it had 65,356 subscribers - "in 39 countries and all 50 states," Neighbors said - including Marquette men's basketball coach Buzz Williams and Creighton's Greg McDermott.
"Mike is nationally recognized for his depth of knowledge for the game, but also his generosity and how he shares that knowledge, which is incredible for an academic and a teaching institution," Woodward said.
Blair, who is getting enshrined in the women's basketball Hall of Fame on June 8, gets to see first-hand how his protégé is doing this coming season. Texas A&M and Washington will begin a two-game, home-and-home series that Neighbors helped schedule before he got promoted to head man.
"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 this week by telephone from Texas A&M, where he won the 2011 national championship. "He gives back. I think he has revolutionized women's athletics, in the way of sharing information and ideas.
"He's earned this chance. What you want to do is have that continuity of what he and Kevin started in that program, and get it back to that level among the top in the nation.
"Now, they don't have to start over. Because he is going to continue what he and Kevin started."