Mike Neu knew this day was coming for a couple of months, but that didn’t do anything to contain his enthusiasm when the Ball State graduate and former Cardinal quarterback stepped onto the field at Scheumann Field on March 22 as the one now directing his beloved program.
"It was awesome," Neu said of the program’s first spring practice. "I tell people I know I started this job in the middle of January, but I feel like I have been here for almost two years, waiting for this day to arrive to finally get on a practice field.
"To get a chance to get to know these guys ... once you get on the field, you really get to know these guys and you get to evaluate them. You find out quickly which guys are willing to put that work in in order for us to have success and get to where we want to go."
Ball State has one of its own in charge of its football program now, which means a lot to the 1994 Ball State graduate. An outstanding quarterback, Neu led the Cardinals to two Mid-American Conference titles and finished his playing career as the 1993 MAC Most Valuable Player.
"I have a ton of pride in this place," Neu said. "I was very fortunate to be a part of some great teams and be on two championship teams while I was here as a player. Some of the things we experienced then and the hard work that we put in ... there is no substitute for hard work, and I tell our guys that every day that we have to pay the price."
Knowing what he experienced as a player, Neu wants a return the Cardinals to that kind of glory.
Pete Lembo left in December to be assistant head coach at Maryland after five seasons and a 33-29 record. The program, though, is still reeling from a 3-9 record last year and 8-16 mark the last two seasons.
"My goal is instilling a belief that we can win here," Neu said. "I know last year was tough for the team. This program has had a lot of success over the years, and we just have to get the belief back that we can go out and compete with anybody.
"It’s a lot more fun when you win football games. We want to win a championship, and I make no bones about it. I have been pretty straightforward about that."
Neu has already put the offensive, defensive and special-team systems in place since his arrival, so now it is time to see what he has to work with and evaluate the inherited personnel.
"At the end of the day, we need to learn," Neu said. "We need to learn our football team, and we need to learn which guys can overcome adversity by having a bad practice and bounce back and have a good practice the next day. You want to learn the guys who are consistent day in and day out and consistent throughout the course of 15 spring practices."
In particular, Neu will get to impart his wisdom and past experience as a quarterback – as well as coaching the position with the New Orleans Saints and the University of Tulane – to sophomore-to-be Riley Neal, who had his share of ups and downs after being put into the starting role just a few games into last season.
"The one thing you want to make sure is he has the right kind of work ethic," Neu said. "In order to have success at the quarterback position, it is not just coming to practice and not just about showing up Saturday to play the game. He has to find time on his own to study the game and getting the extra work in; he has to do stuff like that on his own if the game is important enough to him.
"He has a great skill set. But having that and success don’t always go hand in hand. You have to work hard in order to have that success and get the most out of your tools."