Tuesday, June 29, 2004
By Jim Derry
Staff writer
The Arena Football League arguably enjoyed its most successful season in 18 years of play, and the expansion VooDoo was part of the reason.

The league set an overall attendance record, with the VooDoo ranked third, averaging more than 15,000 fans.

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The leader on the football field was AFL Coach of the Year Mike Neu, the man in charge of a team that set a record for most wins for a first-year team (11). In a Q & A session with staff reporter Jim Derry, Neu looks back on the season, how he ended up in New Orleans and his thoughts on his new hometown.

Putting your playoff loss aside, this season had to be satisfying for you?

It was. I'm very excited to be recognized as the most successful expansion team in the history of the league. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to have come to New Orleans. I've been dealt an incredible hand to have these kinds of facilities, to have these kinds of resources, to have a partnership with an NFL team and to have a team to be able to attract free agents to. I was given an unbelievable opportunity from (owner) Tom Benson and (executive vice president of football operations) Mickey Loomis to come here, and, although I am disappointed about not winning the playoff game and having a chance to win a championship, to be able to win 11 games, which has never been done before, and qualify for a first-round playoff game at home (is satisfying).

You won the Coach of the Year award in just your second season as a head coach in the league (Neu was coach of Carolina in 2002). How much has your background shaped you, with your experience as a player and assistant coach in the AFL and as a head coach in af2?

It has a lot to do with the person I am and the coach I am right now. Those experiences and those trials and tribulations, that's what makes you who you are. I wouldn't trade that path for anything. To be a quarterbacks coach (at Nashville in 1998), to be an offensive coordinator (at Nashville in 1999), to be a head coach in the af2 league (at Augusta, Ga., in 2000) was a start. That experience I gained there -- putting an organization together from scratch -- I mean, those experiences are some of the best I've had. Then there was the opportunity in Carolina, where I learned about free agency. Those experiences had everything to do with who I am. Even when I was a player in Nashville and Orlando. . . . I've had great teachers all along.

As a quarterback in college (Ball State), how did you go from playing football to playing and coaching arena football?

As a quarterback, you always want to throw the football on every down. When I first got into the arena league in 1996, I thought this is great, throwing on every down, and what better league could there be for a quarterback? The thing that is very unique about the arena league is the quarterback. You have to be very sharp. You've got to make great decisions. You have to be fast. You have to be thinking all the time because you don't have any time to waste in the pocket. . . . You have to think like a quarterback when you're out there coaching this game.

Players talk about how important it is to have solid team chemistry, and you had 25 players who seemed to really like playing together. How do you assemble that?

I wanted certain guys in free agency. The nucleus of our team, I've had a chance to coach some of those guys in the past, and I knew what they were about, character-wise. . . . They're good people, and they work hard. They always come to work every day on time, enjoy what they do, and these cats hang out with each other away from the field. I think that in itself tells you a lot about them as teammates. They love each other.

How easy will it be for you, knowing that you should have the same core group of guys going into next season?

When I interviewed all the players before they left, I told them that I hoped they felt as if they were treated like a man and treated like a pro. I hope they felt well-respected, and I think the tough thing for us is that we're going to have to keep all those guys from going other places. I think, through the experience we had here and the fun we had and the support we've got, I think a lot of those guys will be back.

Do you think the fact that you're close to their age (33) has helped you?

I think that it has. I can relate to those guys, and my approach has always been that I feel like I'm a teammate. The only difference is I'm in a different role. I don't try to put myself on a pedestal. I just try to work hard. I try to treat players with respect, and I try to demand the most out of each and every guy. I don't try to be somebody that I'm not. I try to be a hard worker, and when guys see that, they buy into what you do. . . . I think being younger helps me understand them a little bit better.

Talk about how the city has seemed to have learned the game and is excited about it.

With the fan support, we've just been overwhelmed. I talk to fans in restaurants, in a grocery store, after a game, and they're so genuine. They have a passion for the game, and we were very fortunate that they gave us a chance. We were a new product coming in, if you will, and not a lot of people knew about the arena league, with it not being here since (the New Orleans Night) in the early '90s. After we worked hard on the field, people respected that, and they got their friends to come out also. But I can't say thanks enough to our fans, because they created the best environment that I've ever been in in the arena league, and they have made it truly a home-field advantage when we play at New Orleans Arena. I can't wait to one day award those fans with a trophy.

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Jim Derry can be reached at jderry@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3839.