Being a college coach is a thankless job, but Coach Hoeppner’s arrival at Bloomington in 2004 was a rousing affair worthy of royalty. He had brought along a defibrillator for the fans who were fast asleep until basketball season. Hoeppner was the face of IU football – literally. The campus was colored with an inordinate number of images that stated, “Coach Hoeppner wants YOU.”
Uncle Sam be damned, Coach Hoeppner had horned the Hoosiers for help.
In that sense, he was a savior. The Hoosiers beat Kentucky to start the 2005 season with an unbeaten 3-0 record. Coach Hoeppner had dedicated that win to his mentor Stewart “Red” Faught. The game signaled an attitude change in Bloomington. Coach Hoeppner had asked students to come out and cheer for an IU victory. They arrived in droves until the final exasperating seconds when the whole stadium shook (yes! The fans were still in the stadium!) with exuberance, exhilaration and the belief that IU football was ready to turn to excellence.
He was a fighter. Fans, foes and football players alike discovered this during the week following their game against Kentucky when IU was challenged to their first conference game in Madison, Wisc. Coach Hoeppner refused to let his football team revert back from revelry. But as the game began to slip out of the Hoosiers’ hands, Coach Hoeppner threw his headphones like a soccer style throw-in onto the field, landing inches from the referee’s feet. On that cool, autumn afternoon, Coach Hoeppner’s face was more crimson than his collar.
He was a winner. Despite falling one victory short of a bowl game in the 2006 season, Coach Hoeppner returned from a two-game absence and rallied his team back from the two non-conference losses they endured while he was gone. The IU players took to their coach’s form and fought for their savior. Coach Hoeppner’s Hoosiers toppled No. 13 Iowa by scoring 24 of the game’s final 31 points. Two weeks later, Coach Hoeppner led his men to a victory against Michigan State and aligned the team one win away from their first bowl bid in more than 13 seasons.
But above all, he was the eternal optimist. In Coach Hoeppner’s eyes, the Hoosiers had as much of a chance to win versus Nicholls State as they did in a game versus Ohio State. In Coach Hoeppner’s eyes, the Hoosiers never “lost” – they simply didn’t beat their opponent. It didn’t matter if you, the fan, never knew the difference, because Coach Hoeppner always did.
Even after a loss to Purdue in the final throes of the 2006 season – falling one game shy of his dream to play a thirteenth game – Coach Hoeppner maintained hope. His shoulders were slumped with fatigue and his face forced away tears, while his wife, Jane, looked on with grave concern in the post-game conference. But Coach Hoeppner always saw the glass half-full. To him, the game of football was full of seasons. The end of one ultimately signaled the beginning of another, and a renewed glint would glaze over his eyes.
“Did we accomplish everything that we could have?” Coach Hoeppner asked rhetorically in the last press conference of the season. “No. But we’ve affected a lot of people, we’ve laid a foundation, and the spirit is great, not only with the team, but within the Hoosier Nation. I will return next year and for as long as they’ll keep me around here.”
Coach Hoeppner’s job was thankless and his death untimely. Perhaps he – the eternal optimist – would not say that he lost his life to a brain tumor; rather, he simply didn’t beat it. So as seasons turn from spring to summer and eventually summer to fall, IU football will begin anew, without Coach Hoeppner, but still with hope. What I learned from Coach Hoeppner was that in the heart of every Hoosier who returns seasonally to Memorial Stadium, there lies hope. There is, in fact, a little bit of Coach Hoeppner in all of us. Coach Hoeppner did not leave Bloomington on Tuesday morning. He will always exist in some form. He will live on in the memory of every Hoosier who knows that a rock is worth defending, and a first down is worth celebrating.
Being a college coach may be a thankless job, but Coach Hoeppner was more than just a coach; he was the captain of boundless expectations in Bloomington. Thank you, Coach Hoeppner. Thank you for breathing life back into IU football. Thank you for revealing that the beating heart of this basketball town was spotted brown with white laces. Thank you for everything. You were a savior, a fighter, a winner and a friend.
Thank you, Coach Hoeppner.
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