EATON – For the past 36 years, football has been a big part of Ron Neanen’s life, and for the last 27 of those years he has roamed the sidelines in the fall at what he called “the best place to play football.”
After winning more than 190 games, seven league championships and making the playoffs seven times while coaching at Eaton High School, Neanen is retiring.
The veteran coach and most “winningest” coach in Eaton and Preble County football history made the announcement to his team in early March. The school acted on his decision later in the spring.
Neanen will be succeeded by long-time assistant coach Brad Davis.
The decision wasn’t necessarily football-based, but one he had to make for his future due to new guidelines in retirement for teachers.
“It was something that I knew was coming. Cindy (his wife) and I have discussed it the last couple of years. What really pushed it was the change in our retirement system. STRS is changing. Because of the different rules this is the last year you could retire under the rules I came in with,” Neanen said.
He said he considered coaching, but decided against because he would have to sit out two months with no contact with players and coaches.
“I considered trying to continue coaching. You have to sit out two calendar months, which would be June and July. Which for us are tremendously important, heavy work months,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be fair to the kids or the coaching staff if I weren’t there during June and July.”
He said the timing is right to move on.
“It was a good time with the whole new situation. What we’ve got out here is awesome. It’s one of the best facilities in this area of the state. The community deserves it. The kids deserve it. I spent 25 years convincing kids that what we had down there (Park Avenue) was fantastic,” he said. “We built things with a little chip on our shoulder with the work ethic and the effort and making less, as far as facilities, seem like a bonus, like a strength for us. We played so heavy on the tradition of Park Avenue that’s where I belong. This seemed like a new time for someone new to come in and make those kind of traditions here at the new place.”
Neanen enjoyed his two years at the new stadium.
“This is awesome, fantastic,” he said. “I enjoyed my two years on it no doubt. I’m just kind of old school. We just made our traditions based on all those things. This is beautiful. It’s gorgeous.”
And the decision was easy for his future, but difficult to tell his assistant coaches and players.
“When you sit back and reflect honestly on all that it was like this is probably a good time for someone new to come in and make the new traditions at the new field. It’s probably a good time for me to be a better husband, a better dad, a better son, a better brother, because obviously I’ve sacrificed some of those things over the 27 years,” Neanen said.
During his time at Eaton he has been surrounding by great assistants.
“We’ve kind of have had two different coaching staff’s,” he said. (I’ve) been blessed with that. “
He mentioned the likes of Mark Hoffman, Larry Hildebrand, Mike Hennessey and Scott Burnett, who has been with Neanen all 27 years.
“Those guys were great to work with. They helped me through those first years,” Neanen said.
The Second groups of coaches were guys who played for Neanen.
“It’s special. (It’s) rewarding to see them grow up and turn into men,” he said.
Neanen arrived at Eaton in 1987 as assistant coach. The next year he took over the program and from there the Eagles have soared.
Prior to arriving at Eaton, the National Trail grad spent eight years years teaching and coaching at Defiance, five years at the college and three years at Defiance City Schools.
His first team went 5-5 and he picked up his first win at Preble Shawnee, 14-7.
Eaton first experienced the playoffs in 1989 and we consistent playoff contenders in the 1990’s but always seemed to fall short due to only four teams per regional qualifying.
“We had some great teams that didn’t get a chance to play in the playoffs because we only had the top four (teams in the region) and there were only five divisions at that point. We had 9-1 teams that never got it,” Neanen said. “Valley View beat us those years when they were winning state championships. There were some great teams I think would have won some games but we finished fifth I don’t know how many times. “
The Eagles hosted a pair of playoff games and won both defeated Urbana and Jackson.
The 2010 team completed a perfect regular season and reached the regional finals before falling to Cincinnati McNicholas to conclude at 12-1 year.
Over the course of his 27 years there were several moments which stood out.
“There are so many I would probably insult someone if I started listing them,” he said as he reflected back on his career. “Obviously, 2010, a perfect season. That has to stand out. I want to say all the playoff teams, but then some of the teams that went 9-1 were standout highlights too. Working with my kids, my three daughters (Jessica, Sadie and Maggie) on the sideline was a highlight. There’s just so, so many. About every year was a highlight.”
His daughters served as student trainers or cheerleaders so it’s been a family affair. After every game, home or away, wins or loses, he was greeted by family and close friends.
“It’s been fun with that group. You knew they were going to support you win or lose. Sometimes they had advice,” he said with laugh. “
Neanen said the community support made Friday nights special.
“That’s what made it special. We had great fans, great fans. They made it really, really special.”
With his success Neanen had opportunities to move on to bigger schools.
“I had opportunities to leave but nothing seemed better than where I was. I like it here. I fit here. I think to stay that long you have to get a place where you fit,” Neanen said. “I didn’t mind the poor facilities. I liked it. We used it. We used the tradition. We based everything on effort and hard work. It just kind of fit the kids we have. It felt good. Only maybe once or twice, when I was younger, did I really consider leaving. I didn’t because I knew I didn’t want to leave. This is a good place, a good place to raise your family. I was having fun. It’s been a great place.”
Telling his coaches and players of his decision was more difficult than he thought it would be.
“I told the coaches the night before and met with the team first thing before school,” he said of the meetings on Thursday, March 5 and Friday, March 6. He met with the coaches in the locker room and the team in the Performing Art Center.
“It was emotional, real emotional. I decided that Monday (March 2) that I was going to have to do it. I didn’t say near all the things I wanted to say. I couldn’t get through it. I wish I could have, but I couldn’t,” he said. “Meeting with the coaches was probably more emotional. I wish I wasn’t that emotional at times. That one took me a good half an hour to get everything out. That was really, really hard.”
He still plans on coming to games.
“I’ll still be around. I’ll be a big fan on Friday nights,” he said. “It’s been fun.”
He had a final message for his players and coaches.
“Thank you. I know I got more from them than they got from me. I wouldn’t trade any of it,” he said. Not a season.”