Terry Hoeppner: The Soul of a Sport

Posted Jun 19, 2007

Terry Hoeppner never got the chance to participate in the college football dramas that historians will catalogue and contemplate for decades. The beloved Indiana coach, who died Tuesday at age 59 after a spirited 18-month battle with brain tumors, won't live to see the Hoosiers in the Rose Bowl on a sparkling New Year's afternoon.

The man who tutored Ben Roethlisberger achieved much in his coaching career, but when the story of college football in the 21st century is written, Hoeppner won't appear alongside the names of Carroll, Stoops, Meyer, Tressel, and Brown.

And yet, as the college football world mourns a man who earned lavish praise from so many of his colleagues and former players, it's overwhelmingly clear that Hoeppner achieved something much more important than a national championship or a Big Ten crown. A very brief survey of media outlets, player perspectives and coach testimonials indicates that Hoeppner was the classic embodiment of what a coach is supposed to be, especially in the college game, where molding the man takes on more importance than the more NFL-like task of molding the football player.

While the great drama of college football is indeed the chase for championship glory, there's another drama which unfolds on Autumnal Saturdays. It's a pigskin passion play that won't be written about by the great chroniclers of the sport, but in strictly human terms, it surely eclipses the ballyhooed battles for BCS bragging rights. What is this intrigue? It's nothing less than the fight to be the best person one can possibly be. It's the struggle that occurs within each young soul, each blossoming body, each fragile mind, as late-teen and early-twentysomething collegiate athletes learn the life lessons that--if taught well--will shepherd them through the rest of their lives. Simply stated, Terry Hoeppner was a great teacher for his players, at Indiana and also at Miami of Ohio.

From a football-only standpoint, Hoeppner won't get to complete his rebuilding project in Bloomington. But on a human and profoundly cosmic level, he already did rebuild a lot of sagging spirits in and around the Indiana program before the ravages of relentless tumors took him from this Earth. It had to take something monstrously nasty to overcome Terry Hoeppner, because each second of his life was lived with an indomitable will. Hoeppner's body failed him in the end, but his spirit remained entirely undiminished throughout his grueling ordeal.

The most successful period of Hoeppner's career would have to be his climb to prominence with Miami of Ohio, as the Redhawks rode the heroics of Roethlisberger--a future Super Bowl champion--to multiple winning seasons, a bowl victory, and a MAC championship. Through the prism of football alone, Hoeppner made his biggest mark at Miami. But when you look at the human drama within college football, Hoeppner's shining moment came on October 14 of last year.

On that sun-splashed Saturday morning in Bloomington, few cameras were fixed on the Indiana Hoosiers' home field for a game against the struggling Iowa Hawkeyes. Several hours later, Florida and Auburn would clash in Alabama, in the kind of game that draws the attention of the national press corps and consumes hundreds of hours of talk-radio speculation and television punditry. On Saturdays in the fall, Iowa-Indiana games matter not because of the gridiron action, but because young people will learn something about themselves.

On October 14, 2006, Indiana football players learned a great deal about themselves, and the college football community learned a lot about Terry Hoeppner.

When the Hoosiers fell behind the slumping but still formidable Hawkeyes by a score of 21 to 7 in the second quarter, it's safe to say that a lot of remote controls switched off ESPN2 and searched for other action on other networks. But while the attention of the nation wasn't riveted on this contest, Hoeppner never lost the attention of the only people who mattered: his players. In seasons past, Indiana teams would have folded up the tent against name programs such as Iowa, but as the college football world would soon learn, Indiana football wasn't going to quit under the enthusiastic leadership of Terry Hoeppner.

Indiana tied Iowa at 21 and then, after falling behind 28-24, scored a fourth-quarter touchdown and then made multiple defensive stands to capture an exhilarating 31-28 win, the breakthrough that signals a change in the prevailing culture at a program. Indiana's triumph was the kind of achievement that lets everyone know that a bleak past can finally be left behind at a formerly downtrodden outfit. Hoeppner--very much immersed in his health problems at the time--beamed and exulted as he basked in the glow of a victory that was surely important as a barometer of football success, but which was infinitely more valuable because it gave unmistakable proof that a bunch of young people were learning how to believe in themselves and each other, instead of sagging at the first sign of adversity. When Terry Hoeppner's stay in Bloomington is remembered, that October afternoon against Iowa will be the moment that will outshine all the others. When Hoeppner's life is measured, that awesome occasion will serve as the greatest example of how this special man used football to improve lives.

The story of Terry Hoeppner's life won't acquire the transcendent arc of college football coaching icons such as Knute Rockne or Bear Bryant, or--for that matter--the recently departed Bo Schembechler. But while the late Indiana coach never got to walk onto the green grass of Pasadena on January 1, he actually did something much more significant than winning a Big Ten title: he taught his players how to be better people. That's not something that can easily be contained (if at all) in a massive compendium of college football history. It is something, however, that matters more than anything else in life.

Terry Hoeppner won't be able to have the decorated coaching career that will inscribe his name in the history books of college football. But then again, Hoeppner participated in college football's other Saturday drama, the one that will write his name into a book with a more eternal quality. In the end, Terry Hoeppner didn't choose the sexier, more seductive drama college football has to offer; he only chose the better, more significant one that's remembered long after the cheers fade away. For that reason, Terry Hoeppner's virtues and values will never fade away. They'll always be remembered--and more importantly, lived out--by the young men who played football in Ohio and Indiana over the past eight years.