It’s just not fair.
Life and death aren’t always.
Nonetheless, I consider myself fortunate to have been among those on hand this year for what was one of Hep’s last public speaking experiences, at an NCAA function.
Per usual, Hep was witty, inspirational and ultra-enthusiastic as he talked about his program. If I didn’t have season tickets already, I would have rushed out and bought some. My last memory of him is a great one.
I knew Hep going back to his days as an assistant to the fabled Red Faught at Hep’s alma mater, Franklin College. Hep eventually ended up at Miami University (Ohio) as an assistant, then became head coach when Randy Walker departed for Northwestern University. What irony: Walker also died before his time, because of a heart attack.
Hep’s tenure as head coach at Miami coincided with three of my daughter’s four years on the Oxford campus. We attended plenty of football games, and I noticed right away that even when the RedHawks lost-which wasn’t often-it wasn’t because they beat themselves. Hoeppner did nothing to detract from Miami’s stellar reputation as the Cradle of Coaches.
Sure, having a quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger didn’t hurt, either.
Shortly after IU hired Hep, I told him I had a confession to make.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I quit on you,” I said.
You should have seen the look on his face. But then I explained.
It was Roethlisberger’s freshman year and Miami was playing the University of Akron. At halftime, Akron had a huge lead, the skies were threatening rain, and I was being pestered by my daughters and their mother to abandon the game and head “uptown”- as “downtown” Oxford is known-so they could do some shopping.
I didn’t want to leave, but I caved in. We went uptown-me to a sports bar to watch a Big Ten game on TV, the girls to the shops.
A little while later, we convened in a bookstore where the radio broadcast of the Miami game was on. The first words I heard were, “… and that completes one of the greatest comebacks in Miami history!”
Miami had rallied to win the game on the last play on Roethlisberger’s 70-yard touchdown pass. Oh, and it never rained.
“And the moral of that story is, Benner, don’t ever quit,” Hep told me, smiling.
Don’t quit. It was his mantra. Whether you’re battling Ohio State or cancer, don’t quit.
I was ecstatic when Athletic Director Rick Greenspan hired Hep as the IU coach and strongly defended that hire to some detractors who thought IU had “settled” instead of spending big money on a big name.
Hep confirmed my faith when he had the moxie to show up at his first press conference with a rose in a bowl.
I loved it. One of Hep’s favorite sayings was, “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” Hep put IU in the “can” category, history be danged. He devoted every waking minute to making it happen.
He began the traditions of The Walk (my wife and I rarely missed) and The Rock. Skeptics thought it was gimmicky, but as I wrote in IBJ during Hep’s first season, give me any tradition other than the losing one.
Hep never saw obstacles, only opportunities. He worked the campus like a revivalist preacher and succeeded in lighting a fire under that historically apathetic student body. The kids would wave flags and sing the “Terry Hoeppner” song with the Marching Hundred. It was joyful.
He made substantial inroads recruiting in-state talent and obviously had a major coup in attracting quarterback Kellen Lewis from the University of Florida to Indiana.
There’s no question the football product has improved substantially. If not for Hep’s two-game, two-loss absence last year, Indiana would have gone to a bowl game. This year, the Hoosiers will make a postseason appearance and that-as well as an expanded Memorial Stadium-will be part of Hep’s legacy.
I know the misgivings some have for the future of IU football under Bill Lynch. But like Hep, I’ve known Lynch a long time. He’s a quality person, and a quality coach.
More to the point, however, is that he’s Hep’s guy. But that can wait for September. For now, one last time with feeling:
Hep, Hep, hooray.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.