Think you know Mike Neighbors? The Washington women’s basketball coach is also a speed-reading movie buff who has had two heart attacks. Here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about the quirky man who has led UW to the Final Four.
No need to probe Mike Neighbors, for the mouth of the Washington women’s basketball coach is forever moving. The 47-year-old native of Greenwood, Ark., has a bottomless supply of anecdotes and opinions.
You won’t find another coach like him on Montlake, but then again, there has never been a team like his on Montlake, either. When the Huskies take on Syracuse in Indianapolis on Sunday, they’ll be the first UW women’s basketball team to play in a Final Four.
Pretty nuts for a third-year head coach who came to Seattle as an assistant five years ago, then landed this job three days after his predecessor, Kevin McGuff, left for Ohio State. Of course, if you spent a few minutes getting to know Neighbors, you realize that nuts is about as normal as it gets.
What’s that mean exactly? Here are 10 things that tell you just who Mike Neighbors is:
1. He has had two heart attacks
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If Neighbors seems like he’s on a scavenger hunt to get everything he possibly can out of life, his tenuous ticker may be the reason why. His body’s inability to break down plaque has twice caused chest pain so severe that paramedics had to rush to his aid.
The first heart attack, which came at age 29, prompted Neighbors to quit his $72,000-a-year teaching job so he could pursue his dream of coaching college hoops. Only problem was that the new gig — director of basketball operations for the Arkansas women’s basketball team — paid $14K, and Mike was married and had a 3-year-old.
From that point forward, he wasn’t going to live with regret. So he made a $58,000-a-year gamble that has paid off exponentially.
Still, after suffering another heart attack at 38, it’s clear this issue isn’t going away. You know what else is clear? That Neighbors is as content as can be.
“I don’t worry about it. I don’t dwell on it,” said Neighbors, noting that his condition has made him a better father, friend and person. “One of my cardiologists told me ‘we could give you a new heart, but that would probably take you out of coaching.’ I don’t know — I think I would die if I was out of coaching.”
2. He keeps lots of lists
Neighbors lists his favorite 1,000 movies and songs, and his favorite 100 TV shows. A fellow assistant coach once hailed film after film as “my favorite movie.” Mike called her out, but when she asked what his favorite movies were, he didn’t have an answer. Thus began the ever-fluctuating list that can be found on IMDB as we speak.
No. 1, if you’re wondering, is “A Few Good Men,” followed by “The Hunt for Red October.” No. 14 is “Rocky IV,” which is ranked 10 spots behind “Hoosiers.”
Whether you agree with his list or not, don’t you dare slight his Oscar omniscience. This year Neighbors correctly guessed 14 of the 15 major Academy Award winners.
A friend later informed him of how much money he would have won had he made those picks in Vegas with $10 attached. Don’t worry, it was only $4.6 million.
3. His lowest moment was his eureka moment
After stints at Tulsa, Colorado and Arkansas, Neighbors spent four years as an assistant coach at Xavier before coming to Washington. And in March 2010, the Musketeers were tied with Stanford in the final 20 seconds of an Elite Eight game.
That’s when Xavier’s Dee Dee Jernigan missed two uncontested layups that would have given her team a two-point lead. A few seconds later, Stanford earned a Final Four bid on a last-second shot.
Fans who watched that game likely remember Jernigan lying on the court inconsolably. But go back and view the YouTube clip, and you’ll see Neighbors sprinting out to comfort her when Stanford called a timeout.
After the game, a barrage of text messages flooded Mike’s inbox thanking him for his compassion. And just like that, a haunting moment became a heartwarming one.
“That’s when I knew I was supposed to be a coach,” said Neighbors, who received a congratulatory text from Jernigan when the Huskies reached the Final Four. “They don’t need you when they win. They need you when they miss it.”
4. He’s a cool dude who plays guitar
When Neighbors retires from coaching, he is hellbent on moving to Nashville and driving a tour bus for country-music stars. In fact, he already has a job lined up this summer, when he’ll chauffeur the Texas-based Josh Abbott Band around the Lone Star State. Oh, and he has to be the guitar tech, too.
Neighbors learned to strum after a woman bagged him for a more musically inclined beau. And while there’s no word on whether his guitar skills wooed his current flame, Amy Ratliff, they may have helped the UW land a player.
When Neighbors swung by for a recruiting visit at the home of Kelli Kingma, now a Washington guard, her twin brother, Dan, was playing his guitar. Seconds after shaking hands with the rest of the family, Mike asked Dan for the instrument and started to jam.
“I was just kind of looking at him and thinking, ‘This is so cool. This guy is so chill,’ ” Kelli Kingma said. “I was sold.”
5. He kicked Kelsey Plum out of practice
One day during her freshman year, Plum was becoming increasingly perturbed with how Neighbors was officiating a scrimmage. And Neighbors was becoming increasingly perturbed with how his star guard was reacting.
So in the heat of the moment, he booted her. Plum, who was invited back to practice an hour later, doesn’t take it personally. Neighbors, remember, is the same coach who will hand her a clipboard so she can draw up a play during a timeout.
But despite these two regularly putting their heads together during games, they often bump heads during practice.
“We’re very Type A,” said Plum, who credits Neighbors’ “no BS” nature as the reason she wanted to play for him. “Sometimes I’ll even agree with him but act like I don’t because I don’t want to give in.”
6. He reads really fast
At 37, Neighbors took a test that revealed he could read only 40 words per minute with comprehension. Most people can type faster.
So not wanting to be “the dumbest guy in the room,” he started devouring books.
Now? He’s at 800 words per minute. And he’ll frequently pluck books off his shelf if he thinks one can help a player. One that stood out to center Chantel Osahor is “Quiet,” the story of an introverted girl living in an extroverted world.
“He’d been telling people that he didn’t really know how to get through to me,” said Osahor, “but he said that book really explained who I was to him.”
7. He’s an analytics nerd
There’s a reason “Moneyball” is No. 6 on Neighbors’ all-time movie list. He consumes advanced statistics from every direction, then applies them to coaching.
Want to know how to crack the starting lineup when Pac-12 play comes around? Have one of the five best plus-minuses on the team.
For example, if a player scores 20 points in a scrimmage, but her squad is outscored by two points while she’s on the court, she gets a minus-2.
Neighbors shuffles lineups to see how different players perform with different teammates. But after 50 scrimmages or so, it becomes clear who is contributing to wins, even if they aren’t stuffing the stat sheet.
“It’s hard to argue with,” said Huskies forward Katie Collier. “It’s just basic math, really.”
8. His team practices only once a week
More than 50 practices into Neighbors’ first year as Washington’s head coach, he noticed something: The Huskies weren’t getting better.
So in his own “Moneyball” moment, Neighbors decided three years ago to try something new. He made Wednesday the only true practice day of the week after Jan. 1 — and if anybody missed it, she wouldn’t be eligible to play over the weekend.
This would keep legs fresh and allow players battling nagging injuries to rest. It would also create an uber-intense, ultra-focused practice environment.
Hey, it worked. UW is in the Final Four. And with all that extra time to study, the Huskies’ 3.19 team grade-point average is the highest in at least five years.
9. He’s a bar-game prodigy
From pingpong to pool to Name That Tune, Neighbors is an ace.
After the Huskies beat Kentucky in the Sweet 16, Neighbors and friends went to a dive bar across the street from the team hotel. And it just so happened that this dive bar had a dart board in the corner.
So Mike and his girlfriend decided to play a quick game, and his first three throws went as follows: bull’s-eye, bull’s-eye, double bull’s-eye.
“That wasn’t the highlight of the night,” said Neighbors, whose team had beaten the No. 12 team in the country on its home floor a few hours earlier. “But it might have been the most amazing thing.”
10. His girlfriend rebuffed him for months
Neighbors has a 19-year-old daughter and a teenage son, but he is no longer married to their mother. And had it not been for persistence, he might still be single in every sense of the word.
After meeting Amy Ratliff — a former sports-information director at Kentucky — Neighbors spent about three months trying to score a date with her. His strategy? Place bets in which the loser (it was always him) had to take the winner out.
It took a long time for Amy to bite, but now they’ve been together for six years. So how did he pull it off?
Amy’s twin sister Holly put it best.
“He’s a good recruiter.”