TUCSON, Ariz. — Mike Neu woke up on his 50th birthday and had a flight to Tucson, Arizona.
This wasn’t a vacation to celebrate turning a half-century old. This was the reward of coaching Ball State Football to its first bowl game since the 2013 season.
This is the payoff for leading the Cardinals to a Mid-American Conference Championship for the first time since 1996 — three years following Neu’s tenure as the team’s quarterback.
Neu, like most of the players who arrived in 2016, had to deal with adversity. After Ball State won the MAC Championship Dec. 18, 2020, he admitted he was scared for his job just three years prior and constantly felt like he was letting those close to him down.
“Being in the position of a head coach, you are expected to win,” Neu said. “Every day you go to work, you expect to win and if you don’t, I know I have to do something better.”
In his first season as head coach in 2016, Ball State went 4-8 and 1-7 in the MAC. In 2017, the Cardinals went 2-10 and didn’t win a single conference game. Neu said this is when he started to get concerned for his job security.
Neu said he believes one of his saving graces went beyond the football field. He said how appreciative he was of Ball State Athletic Director Beth Goetz for looking at the bigger picture and offering him a contract extension into 2022 this past offseason. Since then, he said, all he wanted to do was prove he was deserving.
“We continued to make some gains,” Neu said. “Thankfully, she evaluated the whole program, and I am really appreciative of the opportunity to be here, and I thank her on a regular basis. I thank her for giving us the opportunity, and I wanted to repay her.”
All of Neu’s adversity paid off as the game clock hit zero in Detroit and he became a MAC champion.
“It’s a really exciting time,” Goetz said. “I know how much blood, sweat, tears and heart that coach Neu has put into building this program. We are just thrilled for him, the team and all of the fans.”
Redshirt senior quarterback Drew Plitt echoed Goetz’s excitement for Neu and everything he has accomplished so far this season. Plitt was a member of the 2016 and 2017 Ball State teams and knows everything Neu went through.
“He cares so deeply about everyone on the team, from coaches to players to the sports staff, so he loves this team, and he loves this program and the university,” Plitt said.“I can’t be more excited for him because there have been tough times for him.”
Not only did Goetz see the bigger picture, but redshirt junior linebacker Brandon Martin said the Muncie community and the players did as well. Martin missed all but one game last season due to an injury and said he sees Neu as a father figure who has helped him through personal issues.
“We have had some rough times here, and I am glad that the community and the university has stuck with coach Neu,” Martin said. “I know the players definitely have. There wasn’t a time where we doubted him.”
Martin said he was thrilled when he found out Neu would be back this season to prove Ball State belongs in the ranks with some of the best teams in the MAC.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Martin said. “There is not a better head coach in the country or a head coach anybody in this building would rather play for.”