They marinated in six consecutive years with a losing record. The last bowl berth transpired in 2013. But regardless of the results in the midst of an extended struggle, there was unwavering belief. Ball State’s program adopted the player-led mantra “Detroit or Bust” when winter workouts commenced in January 2020.
“When our offseason began way back before COVID hit, that was the mindset,” head coach Mike Neu said at MAC Media Day, one week prior to his team’s season opener. “It was very hard for the guys to watch the MAC Championship. They felt we had the tools to be there.”
Neu was right. In a redemption opportunity in 2020, Ball State didn’t just get to Detroit — they emerged victorious in the Motor City. Now, the same program that couldn’t manage six wins in the prior six seasons racked up six wins in an abbreviated 7-game schedule. Ball State now sits perched on the golden throne of the conference for the first time since 1996 after pulling a landmark upset over No. 23 Buffalo in the MAC Championship Game.
“That’s just a testament to who we are,” quarterback Drew Plitt said. “We set out a goal for this year and we came through with it. We made sure that everybody knew what that goal was and to stick by that goal... And to come out on top, it’s an unbelievable feeling and we’re all speechless when you ask us.”
Prior to 2020, Neu already enjoyed an extended stay in Muncie, IN, but perhaps his time was up. Through four seasons at the helm, the former Ball State quarterback turned head coach fared 15-33. Many programs would have lost patience at that point and hired the newest flavor of the month. Ball State stuck with the same man who delivered a MAC championship in 1993 as a player, in hopes he could replicate that feat with the headset.
“The credit goes to President (Geoffrey) Mearns and to (athletic director) Beth Goetz. They certainly did not have to stick with me,” Neu said. “There were probably some in our community thinking, ‘I’m not sure if he can get it done.’ I understand that. It’s a cutthroat business, it’s a results-oriented business. We showed progress every year, but it was great to put it all together.”
Neu understands the business aspect of college football. So when his program hovered below .500 for his first four years on campus, he began questioning if his time was running out.
“I’m my own worst critic,” Neu said. “A lot of sleepless nights back then. A lot of scars back then. I always felt awful coming home at night. I felt like more than anything, I let my family down... I know what this business is like. You’re expected to win, and if you don’t, a change is likely to happen.”
Ball State’s MAC title isn’t just about the 2020 season. The title quest began when times were tough in Neu’s initial 2017 campaign and the program finished 0-8 in MAC play. Even some of the foundations were set prior to Neu’s arrival in 2016. That season, the true freshmen — now redshirt seniors — had faith they would be the ones to bring Ball State football back to the mountaintop.
“Way back in 2016, there was a group message we had with all of the incoming freshmen, talking about how we were gonna be the ones to change the program,” Plitt said. “We stuck through everything. There were some tough times. If you’ve been in our locker room, you’d understand what we went through. We stuck through it, and here we are now, champions.”
Signs of progress were evident in 2019 when Ball State stormed out of the gate to a 3-0 start in MAC play. Then, they lost three consecutive games in November by a combined eight points, all on go-ahead scores in the final 65 seconds of action. The end result was 5-7, but being three plays away from a MAC West title inspired the “Detroit or Bust” mantra to be adopted.
By the time 2020 rolled around, Ball State’s underclassmen from that cellar-dwelling team developed into senior leadership on one of the most experienced teams in the country. The Cardinals led the MAC with 13 all-conference selections this year. Nine of those selections were seniors, including a triumvirate of First Team defenders.
“I’m so proud of the guys that are seniors on this football team,” Neu said. “2017 was really ugly for us as a program. A lot of lopsided losses, but we continued to preach positivity and hard work. These men stayed here, they stayed the course and they committed to hard work and doing things the right way. There are no shortcuts to success. If you believe it, you can accomplish anything you want to in your life.”
Ball State’s mission is not finished yet. The Cardinals clinched their first conference title since the birth of nearly every player on the roster, but there is still something to accomplish that hasn’t happened in anyone’s lifetime. Ball State is one of eight FBS programs without a bowl win. On Dec. 31 in the Arizona Bowl, it will have the opportunity to knock off its second ranked team of the season — No. 19 San Jose State — and bring postseason hardware back to Muncie.
“I know we got a bowl game coming up, so we’re not done yet,” Plitt said. “This is a huge accomplishment for our team and Ball State in general — 24 years since we won this. The MAC title is in Muncie, IN and through all the tough times our community has been through this year, they can look towards us and see the positive things come out of all of it.”