Once upon a time the University of Arkansas sports programs had a long-standing policy of not scheduling in-state foes in the regular season, but that’s gone by the wayside.
In fact, when the Razorback women’s basketball team visits Little Rock (formerly known as the University of Arkansas-Little Rock) Sunday for a 1 p.m game, it will be the fourth of five games Arkansas head coach Mike Neighbors has of that type has scheduled for this season.
The Razorbacks own a home exhibition victory over the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith (92-62), a road win at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff (70-50) and one over the visiting University of Central Arkansas (72-34) since the regular season started.
Arkansas, which also hosts Arkansas State on Dec. 11, is 10-0 against in-state schools since the in-state ban was lifted before the 2020-21 season.
“I think our state does great things when we come together and there are not many ways that I can impact that in my role in my little corner of the world, but this is one way of it,” Neighbors said. “This will be the second year that we have play four and we are trying to make sure we do that for the forseeable future as well.”
Arkansas (4-0) and Little Rock (1-1) will play at the Jack Stephens Center on a court recently named for legendary head coach Joe Foley.
Foley is one of the winningest coaches in women’s college basketball history with a 834-296 overall mark, including 378-215 at Little Rock.
Neighbors won his 100th game at Arkansas on Thursday night with a 80-59 home win over Kent State and has 198 in his head coaching career that also includes a stint at Washington.
Foley has the third most collegiate wins among active coaches, behind only Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer and UConn’s Geno Auriemma, and is one of just six to have a court named after him.
“He’s a friend, he’s been a mentor, he’s given great advice, he’s a golfing partner, he’s a story-telling buddy, he’s so many things,” Neighbors said of Foley. “And what he has meant for the game of basketball in Arkansas with what he started at Arkansas Tech. He used to provide a team camp for all of our high school coaches to help us all back then.
“He did a lot of work and didn’t make a lot of money. He didn’t charge hardly anything. I don’t see how he did it. He probably didn’t make a dime. He was just doing it to help the game grow. Then you go to Little Rock and helped grow the program as he has.
“He is on the Mount Rushmore of anybody in Arkansas of people that have empowered young ladies and grown the sport when not a lot of people were supporting it.”
The Lady Trojans beat visiting UAPB 60-58 in its opener on Nov. 10 and then lost to Ole Miss 58-40 last Sunday.
“They play like six SEC games (this season),” Neighbors said. “It is a like a new team for him. He is always hard to prepare for because of their style of play and their motion offense, but now you don’t even have a lot of personal to go on because they only played a couple of games and there is just not a lot of video out there.
“You know if they are on his bench that they are tough, they have been coached and they are going to execute.”
Arkansas is 4-0 in the all-time series between the two programs.
“I joke with him that if this series had been going longer we would probably be even because he has had some great teams and still does,” Neighbors said. “But I would think the record would be different had this series be going in the ‘90s.
“I’m glad we have got it going and I don’t know how long it will last, but nobody can say we didn’t try to get it started snd keep it going.”
Neighbors does not mind playing home-and-home games with the in-state schools as his program gets a bonus for both playing and winning on the road in the NET rankings that factor into NCAA Tournament seedings.
“Not only should we play we play home-and-home, but it gives you that bump and we are going to have eight (away) conference (away) games every year, too,” Neighbors said. “I know there are some people that want to play all their games at home. I don’t understand it although I know some people do.
“I am glad our school supports us doing it and gives us the budget to do it. I know sometimes that is a budgetary deal. I am thankful we are able to challenge our kids with road games for a lot of reasons, but the NET is certainly one of those things that factors into the decision.”
Neighbors notes that he, Foley, UAPB coach Dawn Thornton, UCA head coach Sandra Rushing and UAFS coach Ryan McAdams are all friends and that has helped the games get scheduled.
“I’m just glad to be a part of it, I really am,” Neighbors said. “Forty or 50 years from now when I am gone and my two (kids) are grown up and talking about how these games got started, maybe my name will come up as ‘Coach Neighbors was one of the people of the five.’
“I called Dawn, I called Mac, I called Coach Rushing and of course Coach Foley. It is going to be written somewhere and people will remember it and it is just fun to be a part of it.
“…In women’s basketball, and it may not be true in all sports as I can not speak for other sports, but we have a great camaraderie. I took a picture of Dawn after the game, I play golf with Coach Foley, I have hung out with Coach Rushing.
“…Because of the five of us all wanting the same thing this has happened. I mean we want to beat each other the night we play, but I think we are all pulling for each other the nights that we don’t.”
Rushing made her appreciation clear to Neighbors for asking her program to play in Fayetteville in front of over 7,000 fans, a large part of those kids on the annual Elementary School Day game.
“I think it is good for the state of Arkansas and our players,” Rushing said. “…I want our players to play on this stage because this is where we are trying to get. We want to get to this level with the crowd and being in this stage. I didn’t like the outcome, but let’s be serious – they and bigger, stronger and faster.”
Neighbors was thanked repeatedly after the game in Pine Bluff.
“I got to talk to those fans and they say ‘thank you for coming,” Neighbors said. “I was never thanked more than I was walking out of the gym that night, by parents of the opponents, by the same students that were yelling at me to sit down the whole game and then came up after the game and took pictures.”
Photo by John D. James