EAST LANSING, MI - OCTOBER 29: Head coach Terry Hoeppner of the Indiana Hoosiers looks on against the Michigan State Spartans at Spartan Stadium on October 29, 2005. (Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images)
Five years ago today, IU football coach Terry Hoeppner died of cancer. At the time of Hoeppner's death, it was extremely sad but hardly a surprise. Hep's battle with cancer began on December 17, 2005, shortly after the end of his first season as IU's head coach, when he had surgery to remove a brain tumor. On September 12, 2006, Hoeppner announced that he would be missing two weeks for a follow-up surgery. He returned two weeks later, and finished the 2006 season on the sidelines, but essentially, that was it. Hoeppner missed spring practice, and on June 15, 2007, just four days before he died, IU announced that Bill Lynch would coach the Hoosiers in 2007.
It's difficult to know what Hoeppner's legacy would be today if he had lived and had been able to continue as IU's coach. On one hand, IU has long been regarded as a coaching graveyard, if you'll pardon the expression in this context. The last IU coach to leave IU for a better job was Bo McMillin in 1947 (the Detroit Lions), and even Bill Mallory, the most successful IU coach since McMillin, ultimately was fired. The odds were against Hoeppner simply because of where he coached. Still, it's not hard to imagine that he would have been successful. Hoeppner was from Indiana. He had head coaching experience and came from the cradle of coaches, Miami University, a school that had produced two of IU's most successful coaches, John Pont and Bill Mallory. Perhaps alone among his Division I-A peers, Hep dreamed of being the head football coach at IU. His charisma and enthusiastic representation of the program actually had people talking about IU football.
After a rough 4-7/1-7 season in 2005, IU began 2006 with a 2-0 record, although the Hoosiers needed a big comeback to win at Ball State. During Hep's absence, with Lynch at the helm, IU dropped winnable home games to Southern Illinois and Connecticut to drop to 2-2. In Hoeppner's first game back, IU lost badly at home to Wisconsin to fall to 2-3. With a road trip to Illinois looming, followed by a home game against a very good Iowa team, the season appeared to be coming to a quick end. This feeling was further enhanced when IU fell behind 25-7 at Illinois, where IU had not won since 1979. Instead, the Hoosiers rallied and beat the Illini on an Austin Starr field goal at the gun. The next week, IU upset #15 Iowa, and suddenly, IU was 4-3 and in the bowl hunt for the first time in over a decade. On October 28, IU hammered Michigan State 46-21 in a game that the Hoosiers led 44-7 before calling the dogs off, and IU, at 5-4, needed just one more win to become bowl eligible. It didn't happen, of course. IU lost badly at Minnesota, lost badly at home to #2 Michigan, and at Purdue, IU intercepted Curtis Painter four times, but the Hoosiers couldn't get out of their own way, and lost 28-17. That was Hep's last game as IU's coach. The season was IU's 13th straight without a postseason bid, but the 3-5 Big Ten record was IU's best in five years, and nearly every key contributor was returning for 2007.
It's easy to dwell on how things could have been different. Would IU have lost the SIU and UConn games in 2006 had Hep been on the sideline? Just one of those wins would have sent IU to a warm weather bowl in 2006. Would Hep have done even better than 7-5 with the talented 2007 squad? Could he have kept Kellen Lewis in line? Could he have taken IU beyond the realm of minor bowls? It's all unknown and unknowable. It's possible that he wouldn't have done well. It's possible that he would have done better than Cam Cameron and Gerry Dinardo, but perhaps by now, in his eighth season, he would be where Bill Mallory was in the early 1990s, respected but hearing some grumbling about whether IU could ever break out of the middle of the pack.
I wish we had been given the opportunity to find out, but regardless, Hoeppner's short tenure at IU had a lasting impact. Most significantly, during Hoeppner's tenure IU finally raised the funds to enclose the north end zone of Memorial Stadium. That project had been on campus master plans for years, but with Hep's enthusiastic leadership of the program, it finally happened. Hopefully, Hep's old friend Kevin Wilson can use the enhanced facilities to turn IU football into the winning program that Hep dreamed of building.
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