The natural question, then, is how in the world does an Indianapolis native who played football for and graduated from Ball State and has worked in Muncie, Indiana, for the past eight years as the Cardinals’ head football coach end up marrying a woman from Lincolnton?
He’s glad we asked.
Neu’s first head coaching job was for an Arena 2 football team in Augusta in 2000. At the time, the owner of the Augusta Stallions was Frank Lawrence, who also owned the Bobby Jones Ford dealership in town. One of Lawrence’s salesmen introduced the single, 29-year-old Neu to Charmin, who then went by the name of Deputy Skinner.
She was a Columbia County police officer.
“I try to tell people that she arrested me then fell in love, but nobody believes me,” Neu said with a laugh.
In Augusta only one year, Neu and Skinner married quickly, and he took his new bride on a coaching journey she could not have anticipated at the time. She followed him to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he coached the Carolina Cobras of the Arena Football League, then to New Orleans, where he coached the VooDoo Arena League franchise for four seasons. After that, Neu went to work for the New Orleans Saints in the personnel department as a college scout.
It was during their 13 years in Louisiana that Neu said his wife showed her true colors.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, there were times when we were living in New Orleans – and, of course, Baton Rouge is just 45 minutes from us – when Georgia and LSU would play, Charmin is driving around New Orleans with Georgia flags flapping on the car. She was just begging for trouble,” Neu shared.
Charmin was wearing Georgia colors at Tiger Stadium when she and her husband went there to catch LSU’s game against the Bulldogs in 2008. They watched quarterback Matthew Stafford lead Georgia to a 52-38 victory. Charmin was beside herself.
Fast forward to this week, and the anticipation is high in the Neu household. Charmin, Neu revealed, actually has never been to a game at Sanford Stadium.
“So, she’s obviously very excited about that,” said Neu, who himself visited Sanford as the Stallions coach 23 years ago. “She’s rooting for Ball State, of course, but she can’t wait to step on the field there and be between the hedges.”
As for the impending matchup, the Cardinals (0-1) are only slightly less excited. It will be the first time in program history that Ball State has played the nation’s No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press poll. The Cardinals played an Oklahoma team that was ranked No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll in 2011, losing 62-6 in Norman.
Ball State has never played a defending national champion, much less one that has won two in a row.
“Watching Georgia, what I respect so much is, sure, they’re talented – maybe the most talented team in the country – but when your effort matches your talent like theirs does, that’s when you know you’ve got something special,” Neu said. “That’s what I see when I watch the tape. I’ve never met coach (Kirby) Smart, but certainly have a lot of respect for him. They’re in the middle of something truly special, and it’s incredible.”
That said, the Cardinals won’t be intimidated when they step onto Dooley Field for Saturday’s kickoff (noon, SEC Network). It helps that they are coming to Athens just a week after visiting Lexington, Kentucky.
Ball State had the Wildcats worried for a good while Saturday at Kroger Field. The Cardinals led 7-3 in the second quarter and were deep in Kentucky territory trailing 10-7 late in the first half. That’s when they turned the ball over on a fumble, which led to a Wildcats’ TD. Ball State would fumble again on the next possession, which led to another Kentucky score. The Cardinals gave up a 99-yard kickoff return in the third quarter, and that was that.
“Our guys were trying to fight for extra yards, and the ball got knocked out. So, we’ve got to get that cleaned up on our end,” Neu said. “I feel very confident outside of that.”
A Group of 5 program out of the well-respected Mid-American Conference, Ball State literally makes a living out of the kinds of games it is playing Saturday. Georgia is paying the Cardinals $1.6 million to play in Athens. They’ll add that to the $1.65 million Kentucky paid them last week. They received $1.5 million from Tennessee last year on the way to losing 59-10 in Knoxville.
It’s just the cost of doing business on their level. Of this, Neu is quite familiar. A native of Indianapolis, he started 38 games as a quarterback at Ball State before his playing career ended in the Canadian Football League.
“These decisions are bigger than just our football program,” said Neu, who is in his eighth year as the Cardinals’ head coach. “I understand that. I went to school here, and I remember a lot of those games we played back then. So, I know it’s part of it, but obviously it’s a great challenge on our end.”
It likely will be an even greater challenge for the Bulldogs than last week. Georgia got off to a slow start before finishing fast in a 48-7 win over Tennessee-Martin, an FCS-level opponent.
Not only will Ball State be less intimidated having just played Kentucky, but they feature an extremely dangerous offense. They played three quarterbacks against the Wildcats, all of whom played relatively well. Their running back is Marquez Cooper, who with Kent State last year rushed for 90 yards against Georgia, the most the Bulldogs gave up to a single back all season. Ball State’s offensive line has a combined 99 career starts between them. They also have three tight ends who might be the best the Bulldogs face all season. They’re led by 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore Tanner Koziol, who had eight catches for 66 yards against Kentucky.
“They’ve got a really good football team,” Smart said. “I don’t know coach Mike Neu well, but I’m going to get to meet him. Got a lot of respect for their conference. We played Kent State out of this conference last year, and the MAC has done an incredible job of creating a good football environment and some really good football teams.”
Credit: Photo courtesy of Ball State Athletics
Credit: Photo courtesy of Ball State Athletics
Neu and his family are looking forward to Saturday’s visit to Sanford Stadium. The whole clan is coming to Athens from Muncie and Lincolnton. The Neu’s have three children: a 22-year-old daughter, Graycen, who was born in Augusta; 21-year-old son, Carson; and 13-year-old Chase.
Chase, his dad said, is an up-and-coming football player starring at defensive end for his middle school team in Muncie.
“Chase will probably be trying to find coach Smart before the game to see if he can get recruited down the road,” Neu said.
Yes, the lure of the hedges is strong, even from as far away as northeast Indiana.