The Huskies are losing women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors to the Razorbacks. The 47-year-old Arkansas native must pay UW a $1 million buyout to return home.
In a move that’s been anticipated perhaps since the day the Huskies hired him four years ago, Mike Neighbors, who led the Washington women’s basketball team to the most successful three-year run in school history, is returning home to coach the Razorbacks.
The Seattle Times was first to report news of his departure Sunday and it became official Monday morning.
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“It’s more than a dream,” Neighbors wrote in an essay released by Arkansas. “A lot of the time, things like this don’t live up to the expectations that you establish in your dreams. This will exceed it.”
Rumors of Neighbors’ returning to Arkansas began to circulate when the Razorbacks coach Jimmy Dykes resigned March 3 following 13-17 season that included a 2-14 record in the SEC and 11 straight losses to end the season.
Three years ago, Neighbors was a candidate for the Arkansas job when the Razorbacks chose Dykes, who was 43-49 in Fayetteville, Ark.
“I feel like everything that I have done in my career has prepared me to be the head women’s basketball coach at the University of Arkansas,” Neighbors said in a statement released by the school. “As a native Arkansasan, I understand how special our state and the University are. There is only one Razorback and I’m excited to be able to put that logo on my chest and represent our institution and our state across the country.
“This is my dream job and everyone who knows me, knows that,” Neighbors added. “I grew up wanting to be a Razorback and then a Razorback coach and the four years I spent at Arkansas prepared me for this moment. It prepared me for my first job and it prepared me for the head coaching job at Washington four years ago. Now it has come full circle and I’m back at Arkansas.”
However, returning home won’t be cheap for the 48-year-old Greenwood, Ark. native who graduated from Arkansas in 1993.
Neighbors must pay Washington $1 million, per conditions of a buyout clause he signed last year. His contract paid him $290,004 annually and was set to expire after the 2022-23 season.
Neighbors compiled a 98-41 during the past four years at Washington, which included three NCAA tournaments, two Sweet 16 trips and one Final Four appearance. The Huskies were 29-6 this season – the most wins in school history – while setting UW attendance records, including the program’s first sellout at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Neighbors’ exit coincides with the departures of Kelsey Plum, the consensus national player of the year, All-American Chantel Osahor and two-year starter Katie Collier.
That’s a lot of star power walking out the door and for a program that had the look of a budding dynasty and perennial Pac-12 title contender.
Barring any transfers, the Huskies return a pair of starters in freshman guard Aarion McDonald and junior sharp-shooter Natalie Romeo.
McDonald, who started 21 of 28 games, averaged 9.8 points and will be UW’s leading returning scorer. In her first season with UW, Romeo, a transfer from Nebraska, was fourth on the team in scoring with 9.3 points per game. Her 94 three-pointers were third in the Pac-12 and she shot 38.3 percent behind the arc.
The quartet of junior forward Hannah Johnson, sophomore center Deja Strother, freshman forward Mai-Loni Henson and redshirt junior forward Brianna Ruiz, who sat out 2016-17 due to a knee injury, are expected to fill out the front line.
Neighbors is the second women’s basketball coach in four years to leave Washington, joining his former boss Kevin McGuff who departed for Ohio State in 2013 after a two-year tenure with the Huskies.
Washington athletic director Jen Cohen is searching for another basketball coach two weeks after hiring former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins to lead the men’s team.
An early list of potential options for Washington includes: Arizona coach and former Washington assistant Adia Barnes, Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye and Puget Sound coach Loree Payne, a former UW assistant and standout guard (1999-03).
Pac-12 rival USC also has a head-coaching vacancy, which potentially complicates UW’s coaching search.