BY MASON PLUMMER | Lead Writer | Ball State Sports Link
To say the past handful of seasons for Ball State football have been rough would be a massive understatement.
Since Mike Neu took the reigns as head coach in 2016, things looked bad for some time and many questioned whether Neu was the man for the job.
Finishes of 4-8, 2-10, 4-8 and 5-7 left much to be desired from the former Ball State quarterback turned head coach. There was no question Neu loved Ball State and would do anything in his power to help his alma mater succeed.
While it was never made public, it seemed heading into an already difficult season with COVID-19 throwing a huge wrench in everyone’s plans, that Neu could be on the hot seat in the offseason if the 2020 slate did not go as he planned.
“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.”
Initially, it looked like Ball State would not have a football season at all. The leaders of the Mid-American Conference convened Aug. 8 and cancelled the season, which was devastating for all.
Then, Sept. 26, there was a change of heart.
While the season would not be a normal 12-game slate for Neu and his Cardinals, the MAC proposed a six-game, all-conference schedule which was accepted instantly.
“In order to reach our end goal of winning a MAC championship, whenever that time may be, whether that be in the spring, whether that be in the fall at the end of the day, the goal is still the same,” Ball State linebacker Brandon Martin said in October. “The timeline very well may be different, but the goal is still going to be the same. We still want to be MAC Champions when everything is said and done.”
The mindset Martin shared of ‘winning the wait’ came straight from his head coach, who knew he had a special group coming into the 2020 season.
The season started with a heartbreaking loss at Miami in the final seconds of the game, but Ball State would not finish on the losing end of a matchup for the rest of the season.
Neu found something in his team this season and sparked an energy that lasted the duration of the next seven games. His team finished 7-1 with a MAC Championship and a bowl victory, the first in program history.
The success Neu and company found this season was unprecedented and maybe even surprising to anyone NOT on the Ball State football team. College football pundits across the country picked against the Cardinals, but the constant doubt left a chip on the collective shoulder of the team.
“I’m so proud of our football team and the effort that’s been put in week in and week out,” Neu said after his team’s bowl victory. “It’s high-character men doing things the right way. We got here because of hard work. We embraced the underdog role, and we came out with a purpose. We wanted to seize the moment, and we’ve done that.”
Neu proved himself to be the man for the job in what was his toughest coaching task yet, and now is poised with unprecedented success and momentum that not many expected.
“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.”
After the 7-1 finish, Ball State’s first MAC Championship in over 20 years, and the program’s first ever bowl victory, expectations are now jet-fueled.
Many were aware Neu was a good coach given his pedigree in the NFL and Arena football, but now it may become standard for Ball State to be contending for the MAC Championship and winning bowl games on a regular basis, something the program has never seen in its history.
Ball State’s commitment is apparent, too. Neu’s administrators gave him the time he needed to rebuild — and the university did, too.
Scheduled for completion this summer, is a $15 million indoor practice facility conveniently located adjacent to the Fisher Training Complex on the current footprint of the grass practice fields.
And, this week several players have announced their return in 2021 with the “Run It Back” hashtag on Twitter — including Martin, the reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year.
Quarterback Drew Plitt — and his prime target — wide receiver Justin Hall, also tweeted their return, joining a seemingly growing list with every refresh.
Ball State had 22 seniors, redshirt seniors and graduate students who could return in 2021. The extra year of eligibility, recommended by the NCAA’s Division I Council, was intended to further protect student-athletes during COVID-19.
So while there may have been questions before the season, there are few now. Neu is the man for the Ball State job and unless 2021 is a disaster, will likely have the position until he decides he is ready to move on.