A man of noted lists, Mike Neighbors started another chart within the first month of his April 2013 hiring as Washington’s women’s basketball coach: top mistakes made.
Neighbors was a lifelong assistant when tapped to replace Kevin McGuff, who moved on to a similar position at Ohio State. Nabes, as he’s known on Montlake, was the cool coach on McGuff’s staff. The tester for ideas, which needed to be presented for final approval by McGuff. The confidant for players for life on and off the court. The buddy for a fleet of assistant coaches nationwide to joke about their bosses and seek advice.
Within 30 days, all of that changed. And a first-time head coach, Neighbors admits to being overwhelmed by the magnitude of change that came with shifting one seat to the left on the sideline bench.
“A third of my mistakes happened in the first hundred days,” said Neighbors, who chronicled his season to share with assistants at coaches’ clinics this offseason.
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On a rainy Monday afternoon the week of the Pac-12 tournament at KeyArena, Neighbors took a deep breath and enjoyed a snack in a rare hour with nothing pressing to do. His first regular season had ended with an upset of then-No. 18 California on the road to become the only conference team to defeat Cal and No. 4 Stanford this season.
UW (17-12, 10-8 Pac-12) is seeded sixth in the conference tournament, facing No. 11 seed Utah on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. The Huskies swept the two regular-season games against the Utes — both by one point — but the Utes have lost eight of their final nine games.
In ESPN’s projected NCAA tournament pairings, Washington is listed among the “first four (teams) out” of consideration for an at-large bid. UW is playing on the non-Stanford side of the Pac-12 tournament bracket, however, so it could make a run to be legitimately in the discussion for its first berth since 2007.
Washington’s Alaska Airlines Arena is one of 16 NCAA tournament host sites for the opening two rounds. One of Neighbors’ lists of goals for the Huskies was to be in that four-team field.
Nov. 2, 2013: “Can’t decide if it’s a good or bad thing that I could tell Taco Bell order was wrong by the weight of the bag???” — Neighbors Twitter post at 8:29 p.m.
Neighbors is the survivor of two heart attacks, but swears his doctor told him it had nothing to do with his eating habits. He’s known by his Southern drawl cracking through the drive-thru speaker at the Taco Bell in his Seattle neighborhood.
The daily routine varies only in the combination of soft tacos and mild sauces. A routine so stringent, he can tell by the weight of the bag if it’s correct.
Neighbors, 44, signed a five-year contract worth $1.9 million to coach the Huskies. He retained former co-workers Adia Barnes and Kevin Morrison as his assistants, bringing in longtime friend Fred Castro as the third assistant with volunteer coach Adam Call to round out the bench.
The playing schedule was a breeze, because it was Neighbors’ responsibility for about the past five years under McGuff. It was weaving through the season as a first-time leader that would be the challenge.
December 22, 2013: “There are things I really want to try, but I’m just afraid to do it.” — Neighbors journal entry
Neighbors left his UW team in a Las Vegas airport the week before Christmas. The Huskies had finished the Duel in the Desert tournament with a 2-1 record but tucked in the finish was Heather Corral’s season-ending knee surgery, Talia Walton’s flared chronic knee pain, Katie Collier’s pulled hamstring/neck and Chantel Osahor’s stress fracture.
During the flight home to Arkansas for the winter break, Neighbors’ mind was swimming. How would UW survive a grinding Pac-12 schedule with about seven healthy players where the three guards would have to play nearly every minute?
Answer: Don’t practice.
“I know I’m a quirky guy,” Neighbors said. But a conversation with his former high-school coach — H.B. Stewart, who died in January after a six-year battle with prostate cancer — helped Neighbors take pride in his unique thinking.
The coach already switched up the game-day feel at Alaska Airlines Arena. The video board features pop quizzes from Neighbors’ noted top-100 lists of movies and music. After every matchup, even the blowout losses, the players sign autographs at assigned tables around the four corners of the court.
But the new system of designating Monday as an off day, Tuesday for individual workouts, Thursday for scouting and Wednesday as the only practice day was startling to everyone in his camp. Some fought the idea.
Neighbors’ lists of mentors from Stewart to Texas A&M coach Gary Blair to McGuff continued to encourage Neighbors. McGuff’s assistant for six years, Neighbors couldn’t use that patent and expect to lead UW to a third consecutive 20-win season.
“You can’t try to be somebody else,” Utah coach Anthony Levrets advised Neighbors of the transition. Levrets went through a similar move as an assistant on former Utes coach Elaine Elliott’s staff. He replaced her when she retired from a 31-year career in 2011.
“Especially early in your coaching career, you’re asking yourself, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ” Levrets said. “You’ve got to build a trust within yourself that you’re going to make the right decision based on what you believe.”
It took two weeks to implement Neighbors’ plan, debuting it Jan. 14. UW snapped a three-game losing streak that weekend, collecting its first win against a ranked opponent in defeating then-No. 21 Colorado at home.
The revamped schedule culminated in upsetting then-No. 3 Stanford at home Feb. 9, ending the Cardinal’s 62-game road winning streak against conference opponents. Five UW players finished in double-figure scoring.
Overall, Washington turned a 3-5 conference start, which included getting swept by rival Washington State for the first time since 1975, to a 7-3 finish. The three-guard lineup led the way, not missing a game and all finishing ranked in the Pac-12’s top five for minutes played.
Freshman guard Kelsey Plum averaged a team-leading 20.9 points and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year. Junior guard Jazmine Davis was a third-time All-Pac-12 selection, averaging 19.2 points, including three games scoring 30 points or more. Senior guard Mercedes Wetmore finished the regular season ranked second in the conference in average minutes (37.3) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.29).
The only fret ended up being communication with the NCAA compliance office that submission of 12-hour practice weeks didn’t appear to be hiding a rules violation.
“The big challenge now is what do we do next year when we have our roster back and I’m trying to get them to practice more than one day a week,” Neighbors said.
Feb. 18, 2014: “Haley is not the only one that’s getting a surprise today.” — Neighbors to his daughter Abby, 17.
The one thing that hasn’t changed is Neighbors’ difficulty in spending time with his two children. Divorced for nine years, his daughter and son Alec, 11, live in Arkansas and have only seen him coach in person once since the split.
Yet, the UW position did give Neighbors the power to turn a practice over to his staff to return home to surprise Abby, a senior, at a Make-A-Wish cheer event where the school raised enough money for a little girl to take a trip to Disneyland.
Abby was walked to the hallway and her Dad was behind her with a bouquet of red roses and a stuffed animal with a heart that read “I love you.” The moment moved to the top of Neighbors’ all-time best life events.
“He doesn’t know this, but we cry when he leaves,” said Abby, who won’t see her father again until her birthday in May due to March Madness.
“But I’m very proud of him; he worked up from the bottom and made it to the top.”