The folks at SB Nation have made an incredible feature involving all the big events from the craziest college football season in history, and we’ll forgive them for skipping over Indiana’s contributions to the insanity. Here’s how the Hoosiers fit in to the mess that year:
It was hot.
I was working as a camp counselor north of Indianapolis and had to be up well before the sun if I was going to make it to Bloomington. I trekked across the empty grounds toward my car and was struck by how hot it was already. I cranked up the air conditioning in my 2001 Toyota Corolla and made my south toward Indiana University for day one of my freshman orientation.
One day before this, news came down that Terry Hoeppner, who had spent his last two years generating some desperately needed momentum as the coach of the Indiana Hoosiers football team, had passed away due to complications from brain cancer. He was already set to miss the entire season to put his cancer battle front and center, but the man known campus-wide as “Coach Hep” succumbed shortly thereafter.
Coach Hep hadn’t been with the Hoosiers for very long, but anyone with their finger on the program’s pulse couldn’t help but wonder if Indiana would be able to continue the progress they had made without Hep there to guide them. While an overall record of 9-14 (4-12) isn’t overwhelming on paper, it was the best two-year stretch for Indiana since Bill Mallory was running the show in the mid-nineties.
I made good time on the way to Bloomington, affording me enough minutes to swing by the football stadium. I didn’t have a reason to be there, but it just seemed like something worth doing. There’s always an odd serenity I feel while sitting in a completely empty stadium that I enjoy and Indiana’s policy of leaving theirs open all the time dovetailed nicely to that end.
I explored the student section in an attempt to figure out which vantage point I’d prefer to take in the seven home games I was attending that year. As I moved from section-to-section, row-to-row, I thought a lot about life, death, and if sports mean anything to either of them; the kinds of vague things a rising freshman pseudo-intellectual ponders when more pressing issues are too boring or anxiety-inducing to spend too much time on. Today wasn’t a day to think about my career path, today was a day to think about Coach Hep’s legacy and what Indiana might be now that he’s gone.
Hep’s mantra was “Play 13” as in: play 13 games because you won enough to be invited to a bowl, something Indiana hadn’t done in over a decade. It was a simple goal, clearly stated, and with a schedule that consisted of three MAC schools, FCS Indiana State, and no Ohio State or Michigan, it was imminently achievable. Behind Kellen Lewis (their most dynamic quarterback since Antwaan Randle El) and Tracy Porter (future Super Bowl hero), the Hoosiers seemed ready to accomplish the task their late coach set out for them.
They roared through their non-conference, going 4-0 by an average score of 43-19. Only a home loss to Juice Williams and Illinois blemished the Hoosiers through the season’s first six weeks. With six games to play, the Hoosiers sat at 5-1, needing only one more win for bowl eligibility. A brutal, but understandable, three game skid sent the Hoosiers to the brink but a win over Ball State sent everyone into a temporary fervor.
But Indiana wasn’t going to get away with things that easy (they never do). The college football landscape that year dictated that six wins wasn’t necessarily going to mean a bowl game. If the Hoosiers really wanted to feel safe about Playing 13, they would need to win one more. An 11 AM date at Northwestern was hotly contested but ultimately a loss, meaning Indiana would have to go back to Bloomington and beat arch rival Purdue (something they hadn’t done since 2001) to give a season birthed in tragedy a chance to be remembered forever.
In a game that resembled a microcosm of the season, Indiana raced out to a 24-3 lead in front of a sold-out crowd before faltering down the stretch and finding themselves tied with a little over three minutes to go. In the most Indiana football fashion, they coughed up the ball deep in their own territory while protecting a touchdown lead. A bad penalty left Purdue only 21 yards short of the endzone, which they finished off in two plays.
But, then, in the most un-Indiana football fashion, Kellen Lewis and company calmly marched down the field, eating up three minutes worth of clock and converting key third downs to get Austin Starr close enough to do this:
The game wasn’t quite over and Indiana prevented Purdue from making things even remotely interesting in the last thirty seconds. The crowd poured out onto the field, me included, to celebrate what would appear to the outside world as a very mundane accomplishment. Going 7-5 and snagging an invite to the Insight Bowl is rarely seen as something monumental, but to Indiana fans it was a richly deserved moment of catharsis.
Coach Hep’s wife, Jane, was on the sidelines for that game. You could feel her jubilation from anywhere on the field once the rush started. She was asked what her husband would be doing if he had been here for the game and her answer always stuck with me. She said he’d be high up in the student section, celebrating with the fans. But on that night, it wouldn’t have been necessary, because we’d be rushing down to meet him on the field.
Coach Hep believed in that Indiana team long before anyone else did, and it’s a true shame he didn’t get to see that ball float over the crossbar and feel an entire stadium become believers in an instant. But who knows? Maybe he did. Sports are a strange thing. Ostensibly meaningless to most while, at the same time, sending even the most staunchest of nonbelievers to their knees in prayer. Who’s to say the game couldn’t reach out into the beyond, tap Hep on the shoulder and say: “you’re gonna want to see this.”
So, no, Indiana wasn’t a two-loss national champion, nor one of the many teams to hold a #2 ranking that year, nor one of the many teams to beat a team ranked #2 that year. By most college football standards, it was another forgettable year in B-Town. But no one who was rooting for the Hoosiers will ever forget where they were that night; the night the team kept their promise to their coach taken away too soon.
The night they achieved the opportunity to Play 13.