This weekend, Indiana University will honor the 2007 football team that, after the death of Terry Hoeppner, made his battle cry of “Play 13” a reality and qualified for the Insight Bowl thanks to a 7-5 season and an emotional victory over Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket Game. CQ’s Kyle Swick recounted that season a few weeks ago as it played out from his vantage point as a freshman at Indiana. As that team comes back to Bloomington without the coach who set them on their path and without their star wide receiver, the focus of the weekend should and will be on reflection of those lives, that season, and how a group of young men managed to grab success out of thin air - even the Hoosiers’ uniforms will pay tribute to Hoeppner and that team.
But in what we hope is the beginning, and not the aftermath, of a period of sustained success for Indiana football, it’s hard not to look at where the program was then and is now and wonder what might it have been like with Hep on the sidelines. Such wondering is ultimately trivial, though, as the more meaningful hypotheticals can be asked only by his family and players, those whose lives he touched everyday as a husband, father, grandfather, and coach. As for fans, and the program, the only relevant question seems to be is Indiana realizing Hep’s vision and dream?
Feelings of frustration and pain have long been synonymous with Indiana football fandom. For most of my lifetime, the Hoosiers have been nothing but a footnote and an easy victory between big games and championships for the class of the Big Ten. The last 10 years have certainly been better than the 15 that preceded them, though, and having now played in two straight bowl games, the Hoosiers seem close to a #BreakThrough.
In the last two seasons, we have seen relative success at Indiana. 12 wins and 14 losses isn’t good enough to satisfy Indiana fans, players, and coaches, but it is enough to provide clear and demonstrable evidence of progress. Still, though, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could really be content with where Indiana stands as a program — beating teams worse than them most of the time, beating teams better than them once in a blue moon, and keeping it close and competitive against the blue bloods just often and long enough to allow hope and heartbreak to exist as fully as they exist fleetingly — especially not those who have put in work and sacrifice in the past to lay a foundation upon which today’s Hoosiers can build.
When he was hired, Hoeppner was asked about the prognosis for this program that had just suffered its 10th consecutive losing season. “Can we win here,” Hoeppner asked rhetorically. “There is no doubt about it.” He added, “We’re going to build a championship football team here.”
In the press release announcing his hiring, where Hoeppner could craft a statement and choose his words much more carefully than when answering a reporter’s question, he made it abundantly clear that there was no ceiling for where Indiana football could and should go:
"Indiana football presents a great opportunity, and a great challenge. We are accustomed to winning at Miami, and I want to carry that winning tradition over to the Big Ten. I know we can do that," Hoeppner said. "We will build on the program's foundation that is already in place. Our goal is simple - the Rose Bowl. We will shoot for perfection, and we can settle for excellence."
10 years after his death, the program has been to three bowl games, and two in as many seasons. Indiana football is better. But it’s a long way from Pasadena.
The walk, the rock, the Insight Bowl team, etc. — any number of single things or events could be thought of as Hoeppner’s lasting legacy at Indiana. But perhaps the real legacy is one that didn’t have to be trivial or concrete — striving for the kind of greatness that no one outside of the Indiana family and fanbase think can be attained in Bloomington.
When Indiana opened this 2017 season at home against Ohio State, Tom Allen, still in a suit and tie, walked through Memorial Stadium just a few minutes after the gates opened and students began filing in for the most highly anticipated night of Indiana football that I can ever remember. Upon seeing that some students had entered before he could even put on his game attire, Allen ran over the student section and jumped as high as he could to high five those who reached for him over the railing.
Those images instantly triggered a memory of Jane Hoeppner’s comments in the moments following that 2007 win over Purdue.
She was asked, “If your husband was here right now, what would he be doing?”
“Are you kidding,” Jane replied. “He’d be in the student section! High up in the student section!”
I couldn’t help but think, watching Allen and recalling Jane’s interview, that for the first time in the 10 years since Hoeppner’s death, Indiana football is being led by a man with the same passion Hoeppner had for Indiana University, the football program, the students, the fans, and what we all hope is on the horizon.
No, Indiana football has not realized Hoeppner’s dream of a Rose Bowl or perfection, and it is still far from doing so. But his dream and vision haven’t gone by the wayside either. Allen and his team are still pursuing a Rose Bowl and perfection, and through their enthusiasm and drive, it is evident that they have not settled for falling short of excellence. They are ensuring the legacy of Terry Hoeppner lives on whenever an Indiana football team strives for greatness that few ever expect to be attained.