I'm going to try to avoid the flowery prose today. For every writer who does it well, there are 20 who come across as schmaltzy and insincere. I'm no professional. I think the best tribute that I could give to Hep is to recall what I consider his defining moment as IU's coach, last season's game at Illinois
. When superficially reviewing IU's three Big Ten wins last season (not overwhelming, but IU's highest total since 2001), the two that jump out are the home wins over Iowa and Michigan State. But for the Illinois win, however, it's hard to say whether the two later wins ever would have happened. IU began last season with a comfortable home win over Western Michigan and followed with a comeback win at Ball State. Then, Hep went on his second leave of absence, and IU lost close, winnable home games to Connecticut and Division I-AA Southern Illinois. Entering the season, and even after the close call against Ball State, 4-0 looked possible. Instead, IU limped out of the nonconference schedule 2-2 and then took a beating at home from Wisconsin. IU's next game was at Illinois. Despite the Illini's lackluster performance in recent decades, IU had not won at Illinois since 1979. Early in the second quarter, it appeared that yet another IU season was heading straight down the crapper. After an early 7-7 tie, Illinois pulled ahead 25-7 (it would have been 27-7 but for some Zookery regarding two point conversions).
Now, it helps to understand the psyche of the IU football fan. Those of us who invest emotionally in this program do so not because we are gluttons for punishment, but because we really believe that IU can achieve at least moderate success on the football field. Clearly, anyone who follows IU football closely cannot be described as a fair-weather fan, but we all have our moments. Every person has his limits. As I watched this game in my living room, when Illinois scored to make it 25-7, I was deep in the woe-is-me, this-is-supposed-to-be-fun-but-I-need-a-new-hobby-because-IU-football-is-taking-years-off-my-life mode. At that point, however, the TV cameras caught Terry Hoeppner dressing down every offensive,defensive and special teams player, coach, and waterboy. We've all seen coaches who lose control, but this wasn't that. Hep was simply insisting that the Hoosiers win this game. They stayed strong, came back, and eventually won the game on an Austin Starr field goal as time expired.
For those who live in Indiana but don't follow IU football closely, the main memory of Hep will be as a salesman. "Coach Hep Wants You!" "Defend the Rock!" "The Walk." Indeed, many opposing fans and even some IU fans dismissed Hep as a Lee Corso-style huckster. He wasn't. While he understood that selling the IU program was an essential part of the job, he was an intense, dedicated, and demanding coach on the field. Unlike Corso, who humiliated his players by having someone take a picture of the scoreboard when IU took the lead against some prominent program, Hep expected to win every game. For all of the fun-loving, gregarious stuff off the field, I think I'll remember Hep the most for his intense sideline demeanor, especially in that Illinois game. For all of his self-deprecating charm, this is a man who desperately wanted to win football games and did a wonderful job of passing on his passion to his players, the fans, and everyone associated with the IU program.