Coach’s Chair: Mike Neighbors, University of Washington

Mike Neighbors talks to reserve players during Washington's game against Washington State last month. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Athletics.
Mike Neighbors talks to reserve players during Washington’s game against Washington State last month. Photo courtesy of University of Washington Athletics.

Since being hired as Huskies coach in April of 2013, arguably no Pac 12 coach has been scrutinized or written about more than the University of Washington’s Mike Neighbors.

The Arkansas native is well-known as a stats-cruncher, a list-maker, a voracious reader, a trivia buff and a two-time heart attack survivor before the age of 40. The story of how he formed a bond with All-American Kelsey Plum during the recruiting process, which convinced her to stay with Washington as he took the reins of the program, is well-known.

Neighbors has seen print more recently as a new Seattle-area home buyer and a guitar player. He reads books to better understand his athletes. He lets them draw up plays if the situation warrants, as he infamously did with Plum last year.

In his first season as Washington coach, Neighbors guided the team to the WNIT, and in his second year they made it to the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season they shocked the basketball world when they advanced to the Final Four.

“I had to cancel my tee times at the Final Four,” Neighbors said. “We’re in this thing!”

This year the Huskies have been ranked in the top 10 for most of the way, and they are currently battling through conference play, where they are tied for first in the standings.

After Washington’s first-round Tournament exit in 2015, Neighbors declared the team was done with goal setting because of their relative complacency when they made the cut of 64. This season he isn’t allowing the Huskies to talk about their Final Four run or wear their regional championship rings, because he said this is a new year.

Neighbors was initially a high school teacher and boy’s basketball coach, but quit to be director of basketball operations for Arkansas under coach Gary Blair. He stayed there two years before becoming an assistant coach at Tulsa, Colorado, Arkansas and then Xavier, under coach Kevin McGuff. Neighbors came with McGuff to Washington in 2011 when he was hired as head coach. When McGuff left two years later to become head coach at Ohio State, Neighbors was promoted to head coach for the Huskies.

A statistics-based presentation to Pac 12 coaches when he was still an assistant under McGuff led to conference coaches adopting tougher preconference schedules. Five years later, the Pac 12 Conference has the highest RPI of any conference in the country, and every game of league play is an all-out war. Currently five teams are ranked in the AP top 25 poll; the number has been as high as seven this season.

Neighbors, who will be 48 in March, is the father of two adult children.

Where did your basketball knowledge come from?

I had a high school coach who was a storyteller. I was the point guard, and he inspired me to learn the history of the game and have as much knowledge as I could about it. As I got older, he told me it was because he knew I was going to run out of talent, so I had to have something to fall back on. I had two uncles who were the same way – they wanted me to embrace the strategy of the game. As a ninth grader I started reading and studying anything I could about basketball. That learning curve continued when I worked with Gary Blair. Sixteen hours in a car with him on road trips and listening to him tell his stories, plus calls with Van Chancellor and Andy Landers taught me a lot. I grew up around cousins who got high ACT scores, so I was used to being the dumbest guy in the room. I focused on bettering my own self. You have to know who you are and play to your strengths. In the Pac 12 there are experienced coaches to learn from, as well – Tara, Charli, June.

What’s the difference between being good and being great?

Sustaining your focus and efforts and not just being good for a couple of weeks. Knowing you’ll run in to a lot of “no’s.” I hope over the course of a long career I’m able to be great. When I look at those who have been successful in sport, they have been focused through and through.

How do you approach goal-setting?

We don’t have them – we threw them out. In 2015 when we made the Tournament, Jazmine Davis, Talia Walton and Aminah Williams came to the podium and said how excited they were, and we played our one game like it was already done. That summer I read a book by Jeff Medcalf called “Burn Your Goals,” and it hit home. Goals can limit you. At the same time, Washington Athletics adopted a slogan: “Be Boundless.” It was good timing. So we stopped talking about goals, and instead the team got together and picked 25 areas of importance. We set guidelines and standards for ourselves, with the understanding that if we attended to those standards, the results would take care of themselves. Now if you mention the word “goal” around here, people lose their minds.

I looked back at last year in retrospect, and if we had had goals, we would have topped out in the Sweet 16. Since we didn’t have them, the kids went into it wanting to know what was next.

What’s the best way to deal with the pressure that comes from growing expectations?

That’s the advantage of not having goals, is you don’t have to address pressure – you just use the standards you’ve set for yourself. We decided to try to be one percent better in class, on the court, with our sleep habits, and in recovery. We ¬†know we have a target on our backs. We don’t make it a point of stress; we hold ourselves to our own standards. But of course, it’s easier to do that when you’ve got three experienced seniors and a redshirt junior.

Have you ever wanted to coach men?

I started out only wanting to coach men and not wanting to coach women at all. In fact, I was against doing it. But I was forced into coaching girls basketball at Bentonville High School (Arkansas) because the coach quit. That year we went 1-24, and it was painfully obvious why the previous coach hadn’t wanted the job. But that summer when we got some new players in, two weeks into it and I was hooked. I knew I wasn’t suited for anything else.

How so?

They give me Christmas presents. You don’t get Christmas presents from the guys. (Pause for effect) Men are so egotistical in sports, and if they don’t play well they don’t feel good about themselves. Women are emotional, and I identify with the emotional side of coaching more. I grew up around a lot of women.

What are the foundations of a solid basketball program?

The support from the outside of the program is critical – families, the school administration, the community. Having a sports team is really hard, and you have to have people pulling them in the right directions. And without support from those in academics, a team has a zero chance of success. Then you have to have the right people in the locker room. They all have to be pieces of the puzzle. If people we’re looking at don’t understand what we’re doing, we have to pass on those people, no matter how good they are. All of our kids are a great fit for how we do things. We find kids who care about the same things we care about.

Mike Neighbors and Kelsey Plum discuss game strategy. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP.
Mike Neighbors and Kelsey Plum discuss game strategy. Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP.

How do you balance coaching authority with giving players autonomy?

I try to earn their trust, and if they trust me they understand when I give them autonomy and when I have to make tough decisions. I tell them to let me take the hard part. If I’m always doing what they ask, that’s not ideal, nor is it if I don’t listen to any of their suggestions. If they don’t trust me then they shouldn’t be there; we won’t be successful, and vice versa. For most people, vulnerability is a negative trait, but I see it as just the opposite. We have to be brutally honest with each other.

When you set out to increase RPI in the Pac 12, did you have any idea the conference would be where it is today?

When we first brought it up, we didn’t know how it would be received. That was when I was still an assistant coach to Kevin, and he couldn’t go to the (conference) meeting because his wife was pregnant. I presented the statistics and the coaches took the research and saw the evidence. Then we saw that coaches were making the effort in scheduling. Everyone wanted to see the league be more competitive – more than just Stanford. If we could get recognition for being a tough conference, more recruits would stay home. Now we’ve got as good a depth as anyone, and we have the lowest RPI in the nation – on average, we’re astronomically lower than other teams. A lot of coaches cared, and it was one of those ‘perfect timing’ things. Even so, we could still improve.

You’ve lived all over the country. Which part feels like home to you?

Well, I just bought my first home in Seattle – my first home purchase since I was an assistant coach – so that’s an easy answer. Seattle feels like home, and it is home. I will always be from Arkansas, and I won’t lose my accent. But I fit in here and I like the culture and the people.

Why do you think people refer to you by terms like ‘quirky’ and ‘wacky’?

The lists, the useless trivia. But I don’t care what people think. I want my family and my team to know me. My grandpa always said, ‘people on the edges see things better.’

Washington head coach Mike Neighbors smiles during the first half of a national semifinal game against Syracuse, at the women's Final Four in the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. Photo by AJ Mast/AP.
Washington head coach Mike Neighbors smiles during the first half of a national semifinal game against Syracuse, at the women’s Final Four in the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday, April 3, 2016, in Indianapolis. Photo by AJ Mast/AP.

Do you have any role models?

My mom, for sure. She raised my brother and I working for what used to be Southwestern Bell. Just seeing her work ethic. We didn’t always have what we wanted, but we always had what we needed. Then I had a bunch of uncles that morphed into one role model, because they all adopted me as one of their kids. One wanted to make me good at golf and the other wanted to make me good at tennis. I had never played either. I found out in retrospect that they had had a bet as to who could make me the better athlete in that sport. Then I had a stepdad come along when I was in seventh grade and he was a role model for the rest of the way.

What is the purpose of life?

To make other people’s lives better. To do anything you can do to impact people’s lives in a positive way. To be a good person.