KING: Hep's Legacy His Greatest Gift

Terry Hoeppner was the head football coach at Indiana University for 30 months. He spent a mere 21 games on the Hoosier sidelines, winning just nine. But in that time he developed a football legacy at this school that would be respected and admired by even the winningest coaches in the history of the game.

Indiana sophomore linebacker Will Patterson says he wants to go to the Rose Bowl and wants to go as soon as this season. If an IU football player had uttered those words four years ago, eight years ago or even 15 years ago, he probably would have been laughed off campus. But those days are gone and it's almost entirely due to one man.

Terry Hoeppner was the head football coach at Indiana University for 30 months. He spent a mere 21 games on the Hoosier sidelines. But in that time he developed a football legacy at this school that would be respected by the Bo Schembechlers, Bear Bryants, and Joe Paternos of this world. Those three coaches combined to win over 900 games during their careers, a staggering measure of success. Hoeppner? Well he won just nine games at Indiana, but his biggest victory will never show up in the win-loss column. Nevertheless, it's a victory that will forever be remembered in the annals of Hoosier football history.

To borrow a timely military phrase, Hoeppner won the battle for the hearts and minds of Indiana. He took what was a culture of apathy and pessimism surrounding IU football and seemingly overnight turned it into an atmosphere of unbridled enthusiasm and optimism. During his tenure in Bloomington home attendance rose 39 percent, season ticket sales by 46 percent, and students, undoubtedly Hoeppner's favorite audience, increased their ticket purchases by a whopping 110 percent.

You don't enjoy that kind of marketing success with smoke and mirrors or cheap gimmicks. You achieve it with genuine, earnest enthusiasm and an unshakable belief in what you're doing. Hoeppner believed Indiana was a sleeping giant in football when everyone else considered them simply a lying doormat. He talked of Rose Bowls in his introductory press conference at a time when no one else would make a claim half as bold. That was Terry Hoeppner, bold, brash, and possessing an electricity that could light up Central Park.

While his faith and enthusiasm were impressive, his enduring trait was the way he affected others. The fact that he got so many others to buy into his seemingly far-fetched message was a testimony to his character. He earned followers by always leading by example, never giving into the dark times that all too often challenged his life.

For a perfect example of what kind of man Hoeppner was you need look no further than September 30th of last year. On that day Hoeppner returned to the sidelines after his latest brain surgery that he hoped would stem the tide of his troubling cancer. It was supposed to be a triumphant return to Memorial Stadium. Instead, the day ended with a 52-17 resounding loss to a much better Wisconsin team. Talk about a kick in the teeth, but Hoeppner never wavered.

Other coaches have walked into the IU pressroom after losses like these and seemed like they were only missing the cigarette in their mouth as they faced the firing squad. But that was never Hoeppner. He always turned the post-game post-mortem on its head. While never sidestepping responsibility or making excuses for his team's shortcomings, he also made sure that those in attendance never declared the season over after the latest crushing setback. He would say that there were positives to be discovered and hope to be mined from the latest experience. There was absolutely no one better in college football at performing those tasks than Hoeppner. Even after getting throttled on their own turf, Hoeppner would make sure to leave fans with the message that while the battle was lost, there was unstoppable momentum building that would eventually win the war. Every setback was just that, a step backwards, but for a guy that faced everyday running full speed ahead a step backwards was a negligible obstacle to overcome.

His approach worked, too. It wasn't just lip service. He took a program of players whose confidence was battered and bruised by years of blowout losses, departed coaches, and fan apathy and proved to them that the community had not given up on them after all. Literally within weeks of his arrival players began to notice a new attitude around campus. The laughingstocks had become the lovable underdogs and within months, after they defeated No. 15 Iowa in front of a raucous home crowd, the program had metamorphosed into a ‘shooting rocket'. Suddenly, the team that no one thought would ever find success was getting ready to knock the door down.

When he first used that phrase ‘shooting rocket' some dismissed it as caught-up-in-the-moment hyperbole, but now as we look back on the fascinating life of Hoeppner we discover that nothing could have been more fitting. The 59-year old coach was a shooting star, burning brightly and quickly across the Indiana sky. And like a rare comet that is only seen once every century, Hoeppner won't soon be forgotten around here.

He's left tangible legacies like "The Rock" and "The Walk" and memories of stirring halftime speeches and pre-game press conferences that sounded more like fight promotions than a casual meeting with reporters. However, it's the intangible legacies he has left for posterity that will register the most with Hoosier Nation. Words like "Don't Quit" and "Play 13" were just mottoes, but they were the surface remarks for a much deeper personal philosophy that guided the man's life. Indiana Athletic Director Rick Greenspan may have said it best when he made reference to the fact that Hoeppner went though life like a man living on borrowed time well before any illness ever struck him. It was just his general everyday approach to life. Seize the moment, embrace every opportunity, and never live to regret a single day. When others saw dark clouds he was the type of guy that would remind them that those same clouds bring rains that replenish and renew all life.

And there's no doubt that is what Hoeppner would be telling a packed Memorial Stadium right now if God gave him one more day on this Earth. Don't focus on the tragedy of Hoeppner's all too early passing. Instead remember his message and the way he lived his life. When others saw an impossible situation, whether it was rebuilding the IU football program or terminal cancer, Hoeppner saw an opportunity to fight and prove to others that anything is possible. As the Hoosiers prepare for the 2007 football season you can already feel that vibe swelling up from the ground and ready to wash over Bloomington once again. That's Hep's legacy and one he only needed two seasons to build.

"When you look at that "Rock" who do you think we are all going to think of?" asked basketball coach Kelvin Sampson yesterday.

It will be Hoeppner, with a big smile on his face that seems to say the world is yours if you just believe. Like that rock, his legacy won't be eroding anytime soon. A trip to the Rose Bowl may not be imminent, but as long as Hoeppner is remembered it will always be the goal at IU. Top Stories