Sunday, April 2 at 3 a.m. Pacific
Mike Neighbors was in a mad dash to get back to Seattle — to beat the rumor mill and the impending media headline.
“Nothing was more important to me than delivering the news face-to-face with my team,” said Neighbors. “But I was a 4-hour flight away.”
Then a storm hit the Dallas area and an anxious traveler on the verge of taking his dream job was stuck in limbo.
It was 3 a.m. in Washington before he had a chance to sign a term sheet with the Arkansas Razorbacks. Three hours later he would be in front of his team to deliver the news that he was leaving the great northwest for his alma mater.
“My desire to meet with our team was about how we had operated the last six years,” said Neighbors. “Open, honest and hard conversations are done face-to-face. It is one of the ways we built trust.”
By 7:30 a.m. he was packing his bags and three very important items for the transition that began in the early morning hours of April 4. Coach Neighbors grabbed three books: Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Speed of Trust by Stephen Covey and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath.
Out of a personal library of 3,000 books, those were the selections that Coach Neighbors felt would be vital to the impending transition of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
Throughout the coverage of Coach Neighbors first 100 days as the head coach of the UA women’s basketball team, we will routinely reference quotes from those three books to provide color and context to the opening days of the Neighbors era.
“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.” – Stephen Covey
When you spend time with Coach Neighbors his fervor for life is contagious. He’s infinitely curious, seems to have endless energy and an unshakeable positive outlook.
So on this day when he returned to his home state, some 23 years after beginning his coaching career in Arkansas preps, his zeal is impossible to contain.
“I can only imagine how many more memories that will come back when I land in Fayetteville. It’s where I got my start after my high school career and where I proudly earned my degree.
What I know now that I didn’t know then was that those four years prepared me for the next 40 years of my life. What I know now is all the classes I took and all those days in the computer lab got me ready for all of the times ahead.
Everything I needed to know I learned right here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I’m going to be able to share and point it out now that I’m living my dream. This is the dream job. It’s always been my dream job and everyone has known it.”
On his third day as the head coach of the Razorbacks, Coach Neighbors made 100 phone calls and penned 50 letters. That might seem like a heavy load, but not for someone that is a prolific list writer. He also went back to an article he composed three years prior after his first year as head coach at the University of Washington.
“On day 366 of the job, I spent the entire day making a list of the 418 mistakes I made in my first year as a head coach. By the end of the day, I was able to categorize them into a dozen areas of similar reasons that I felt I had made them.”
1. I assumed being an assistant coach would prepare you to be a head coach
2. I told people the TRUTH before I had earned their TRUST
3. I got out of shape
4. I got out of alignment between Process and Results
5. I tried to do too many “things”
6. I was afraid to do “what I thought best”
7. I exhausted my daily decision energy on stuff that didn’t affect winning
8. I stopped confronting things that needed to be confronted
9. I let the Urgent overcome the Important
10. I forgot to keep myself “charged”
11. I didn’t realize how tight my friend circle would become
12. I had no idea how to manage a staff or how to “manage up”
Just like any new employee starting a new job, there’s things you just have to get done before you can really get to work. On his fourth day on the job Coach Neighbors spent most of the day officially becoming a University of Arkansas employee. Over to the key shop, back over to the Union for an ID and back over to Human Resources to finalize some paperwork.
HR Paperwork: check
“Let’s get to work.”
Officially the head basketball coach at Arkansas, Coach Neighbors still had a few other promises he needed to keep with his Washington star Kelsey Plum. After flight cancellations made it impossible to get to Philadelphia for the Dawn Staley Award award, he then headed straight Los Angeles for the Wooden Award Show, where he’d watch Plum finish off a sweep of every national player of the year award in women’s college basketball.
• John R. Wooden Award
• Naismith Women’s College Player of the Year
• Ann Meyers Drysdale Award
• The Nancy Lieberman Award
• Wade Trophy
• The Dawn Staley Award
• Associated Press Player of the Year
• ESPNW Player of the Year
• Pac-12 POY
The next few days were spent back in Seattle wrapping up things personally and professionally with the Huskies. Despite some nerves and hesitation, Coach Neighbors attended the Washington women’s basketball postseason banquet after the insistence of his seniors.
“It was the right thing to do.”
In the spring of 2013 then Washington head coach Kevin McGuff accepted the head coaching job at Ohio State — leaving 18-year old Husky signee Kelsey Plum in a panic. Plum was released from her National Letter of Intent and her recruitment was essentially opened back up. On April 16, 2013 Plum sent a text to Neighbors, who had been recruiting her all along.
“You stay, I stay” read the message that Neighbors now has framed in his office. On April 21, 2013 Neighbors was named the head coach at Washington and the duo began the best four-year stretch in program history. A week shy of four years later, a proud coach watched a player he recruited be selected as the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft.
Back to the Natural State. After nearly two weeks on the job, Coach Neighbors was finally able to do what he loves most: Individual player workouts
On one particular day, Coach Neighbors went through seven individual player workouts — four of which occurred consecutively in the afternoon.
“I forgot to keep myself charged.”
“Last time I’ve been with these two on an Easter!! They sure have changed a lot while I obviously haven’t aged a bit…”
One of the first year mistakes that Coach Neighbors memorialized in his 418 Mistakes Later article was, “I forgot to keep myself charged.”
So what is he doing to keep himself charged? His answer is actually something he could not do in Seattle.
“I am having lunch or dinner with my daughter (a University of Arkansas student) or son (high school student in Rogers) every day that I am in town.”
On April 20th, Arkansas announced the first assistant coach on the new women’s basketball staff. As Coach Neighbors put it, hiring Lacey Goldwire was, “our first win.”
“Before I got on the plane to Fayetteville for my introductory press conference, I called Lacey and started recruiting her. I had tried to hire her three times before, but it never worked out. Getting her to join the Arkansas staff was absolutely a priority.
And since she’s arrived, Neighbors has been even more impressed.
“She is even better than I expected,” said Neighbors. “I remember watching her recruit. She was always in gyms you wouldn’t expect. She wasn’t scared of a challenge and you could tell on the recruiting trail that she connected with young people. Then I watched her as a coach and I remember seeing players leave the court and everyone of them engaged with her. Every player had a relationship with Lacey and that is something special.”
The very next day, Coach Neighbors announced the second major win of his time at the U of A — locking down Todd Schaefer, who coached with him at Washington.
“To have a program identity built around skill development you must have coaches who pride themselves in that area,” Neighbors said. “Todd’s addition to our staff gives us that immediate credibility and our current and future Razorbacks will all benefit from that.
“Regardless of level or geographic locations, Coach Schaefer’s players improve on the court and graduate off the court,” Neighbors continued. “The things they will learn during their four years here will impact them the next 40 years after they leave. Todd, and his family, will be a great addition to our program and to our state.”
Coach Neighbors signs his first recruit — Raven Northcross-Baker
“I think it is fitting that our first signee is an excellent player who comes from inside our own state. Raven is a proven winner and will be a great addition to our program. She played for Coach Jess Martin at Malvern and helped them to two state titles.”