A year ago today the IU football program lost its leader, the coaching ranks lost a respected colleague and those who were fortunate to have known former coach Terry Hoeppner lost a friend.
Hoeppner died of complications from a brain tumor only months before the start of the 2007-08 season, forcing the IU players and coaching staff to come together and deal with the loss in the midst of preparations for the new year.
“We went into last season with a real sense of purpose,” IU coach Bill Lynch said. “We had a goal in mind and we were united in that goal. And that was to get to a bowl game.”
After a 7-5 regular season and a trip to the Insight Bowl, the Hoosiers accomplished their goal and, in doing so, honored Hoeppner by accomplishing his goal.
Ever since Hoeppner arrived in Bloomington in December 2004, he was focused on leading IU to a bowl game for the first time since 1993. He even created a motto so the team would buy into the goal. In his first season, it was “Play 12,” and it changed in his second season to “Play 13.” The idea was to make it to a bowl game and play an extra 13th game.
“That’s something we’ve been striving for ever since he came here,” senior running back Marcus Thigpen said. “Before he came we really had no hopes of going to a bowl game, because we didn’t feel it. When he came, with all his enthusiasm we knew we had a chance to play 13.”
When Hoeppner took over as head coach, the Hoosiers were coming off a 3-8 season and had won a total of seven games in the previous three seasons. Yet in his two seasons at IU Hoeppner was able to create a winning mentality for IU football.
He saw a lack of traditions, so he created his own. He started “The Walk,” a march of players and coaches through the tailgating areas on their way to the stadium before each game. He nicknamed Memorial Stadium “The Rock” because of the limestone used in its construction. He even had a three-ton boulder placed inside the stadium. The Hoosiers touch the boulder as they come out of the locker room before each game, playing off Hoeppner’s challenge to his team to “defend the rock.”
“The symbolism was that we are actually defending something,” senior kicker Austin Starr said. “He was always creative and he always put a twist on anything, whether it was telling us a story that relates to life or something on the football field.”
Hoeppner inspired fans, players and coaches with his enthusiasm for the game.
“Terry Hoeppner was the embodiment of the very best qualities that are admirable in a coach,” former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said after Hoeppner’s passing. “He was a man of integrity and passion; he loved his players and he loved the game.”
After Hoeppner’s death, “Play 13” became a theme for the 2007 season, a way to remember Hoeppner’s vision.
“That was always his motto,” Lynch said. “He would always mention it, even up until the end, when he was communicating with the team through e-mail he would always say “Play 13’.”
When IU beat Purdue in the last game of the season and became bowl-eligible, they all but ensured that they had reached Hoeppner’s goal.
The image of Starr’s last-second field goal that sealed the Hoosiers’ win and footage of Hoeppner’s wife Jane pointing to the sky after the ball went through the uprights have become symbols of IU’s memorable season.
“I didn’t know how big that kick was going to be at that moment, because you just don’t think about it,” Starr said. “Even after I kicked it and that night, it still didn’t sink in. But now I’m continued to be reminded of how big that game was and how it has changed a lot.”
Last year IU was driven by the desire to make a bowl game in honor of Hoeppner. After losing in the Insight Bowl to Oklahoma State, the Hoosiers hope they can win a bowl game for their former coach this season.
“Even though we did make a bowl game, this year we have to win,” Thigpen said. “It’s not just about going, we have to win one for him.”
This season will start without the adversity that the Hoosiers dealt with leading up to last year. And having a year to reflect on what was a trying time, the players will carry specific memories of their former coach with them into the new season.
Starr recalls the moment before he sent home a game-winning kick against Illinois in 2006 when Hoeppner told him, “Knock ’er through, dude.” And Thigpen remembers when Hoeppner would give the team a term of the day, like mental toughness, enthusiasm, or play hard, before every practice.
In his short time at IU, Hoeppner left his mark on the program, something the players and coaches who knew him will always carry with them.
“I’ve never met a coach or let alone a man who was so inspiring,” Starr said. “He got so much out of the University in the time that he was here.”
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