The spirit of the dearly departed Terry Hoeppner, if not his presence, was palpable during the New Year's Eve Insight Bowl at Tempe, Ariz.
Those footballshaped "Hep" buttons were ubiquitous. The phrases "Play 13" and "Don't Quit" could be heard repeatedly.
At a pre-game pep rally in a Tempe park, thousands of IU faithful gathered so the Indiana football team could honor Hep's tradition of The Walk. IU's new president, Michael McRobbie, led the players and coaches through the back-slapping, highfiving throng, but you know Hep was "there," too. This was precisely the moment he envisioned.
Hep's wife, Jane, was recognized during pre-game ceremonies and received enthusiastic and heartfelt recognition from the Hoosier fans. And, I'm told, the NFL Network offered a poignant tribute to Hoeppner during halftime of its coverage.
Anyone who has followed my writings in this space knows of my unabashed affection and admiration for Hep. And few would doubt that the Hoosiers earned their first postseason appearance in 14 years because of the foundation Hoeppner built before he succumbed to brain cancer last June.
That said, it is now time to move on if for no other reason than this: That is precisely what Hep would want.
That's not to say Hoeppner should be forgotten. Of course not. I am among many who believe he needs to be immortalized in some way, preferably in connection with the remodeling and expansion of Memorial Stadium. Yes, The Rock will always be there (or at least it should), but I'm hoping for something more and I have no doubt Athletic Director Rick Greenspan and his staff will come up with something appropriate.
But for the good of the football program and, especially, the good of Bill Lynch and his staff, it is time to look ahead.
Despite the one-sidedness of the 49-33 loss to Oklahoma State-and I think if the two teams played five times, the Cowboys would win four-significant progress is being made at IU. Even if James Hardy responds to the lure of the NFL's dollars (and who could blame him?), Indiana is a young team that should have better days ahead of it.
To my understanding, the Hoosiers may play as many as eight home games next year, with Ohio State and Michigan remaining off the schedule for one more season. They have had the benefit of the additional practices the bowl berth allowed.
Perhaps more important, they now have had a taste of postseason experience. I would think it would whet their appetite.
Sure, it was discouraging to watch Oklahoma State score touchdowns on its first five possessions and essentially put the game away with more than a half to go. At the same time, it was encouraging that Indiana hung in and made its share of positive plays in the second half.
It also was an exceptional display of support that most of the IU fans stayed to the end and rewarded the team and coaches with an ovation as they departed the field. That's something the Hoosiers should take with them into off-season conditioning and on into spring practice.
Yes, Lynch still has his doubters. During the bowl game, I sat next to one of his loudest critics, who proclaimed Lynch "will never win at Indiana."
I thought by just getting the Hoosiers to a bowl game, after having endured the emotional loss of Hep only six months before, Lynch already had won at Indiana.
But yes, more needs to be done-has to be done-if IU wants to make one of those turnarounds similar to ones that occurred this season at Missouri, or Kansas or, yes, Illinois, despite its Rose Bowl thrashing at the hands of Southern California.
It's unrealistic to think IU will suddenly begin to compete with Ohio State and Michigan for talent. It's not unrealistic to think it can make inroads in Indiana, primarily because Lynch is so well respected by high school coaches throughout the state.
The new and improved facilities will have an impact. So will the support-if it continues-from the alumni base. A sold-out Memorial Stadium for the Old Oaken Bucket game was the first in years. A similar statement was made to future potential bowl hosts by the 10,000 or so fans who made the long-and not inexpensive-journey to Tempe.
By the way, when I returned from Arizona, I took my own "Hep" buttons and put them away in a drawer. I'll only pull them back out for one other bowl trip.
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. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to email@example.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.