SPORTS: Before the first kickoff, all is well on IU gridiron

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C H I C AG O – Almost a year ago in this space, I wrote about IU’s then-new athletic director, Rick Greenspan, observing that his arrival coincided with the beginning of football season, which would allow him to be immediately confronted with the Athletic Department’s most pressing and obvious problem.

Under Gerry DiNardo, an uninspired choice to begin with, Hoosier football was continuing its mired-in-the-muck ways, hopelessly spinning its wheels. Horrible as a game coach and even worse in reaching out to the alumni and student audiences he needed to engage, DiNardo was a DiSaster of monumental proportions, soon to be confirmed by another season of moribund attendance, several botched opportunities for victory, a final ledger of 3-8, and that 63-24 humiliation at Purdue in the Old Oaken Bucket game.

With the IU Athletic Department bleeding red ink and two years remaining on DiNardo’s contract, the easy thing for Greenspan would have been to do nothing, and waste at least another year-if not two-in the futile hope DiNardo would miraculously turn into someone with (a) coaching talent and (b) personality.

Greenspan earned this skeptic’s respect when he bit the bullet, sent DiNardo packing with the lovely parting gift of a buyout, and set out in search of someone who actually has a chance of lighting a fire with what has been a wet-match program.

Enter Terry Hoeppner.

OK, he has yet to coach his first game at IU-that comes Sept. 2 at Central Michigan University-so what passes for a honeymoon is in full swoon in Bloomington.

But something in my gut tells me the Hoosiers have made their best choice since hiring Bill Mallory in 1984. If this guy can’t get it done, it can’t be done.

Which brings me to one of his oft-used lines.

“If you think you can or you think you can’t, well, you’re right,” he says. “I think we can have a successful program.”

He used that line in his introductory press conference last December, and he repeated it recently in Chicago at the Big Ten’s annual kickoff gathering for the media. Sure, incurable optimists show up every fall on campuses around the country, only to be smacked upside the head by reality. Indiana certainly bears all the earmarks of a program-no winning season in 10 years, no conference championship in 37 years, woeful attendance, overshadowed by basketball, and being in a league that feasts on its weaklings-that makes a climb up the mountain seem of Everest proportions.

“I know what the past is,” Hoeppner said repeatedly in Chicago. “Only we’re not going to repeat it.”

He’s addressed the external issues with zeal. As of Aug. 2, he’d traveled Indiana as much as Mitch Daniels on the campaign trail, meeting with 50 alumni groups “officially” and another 20 to 30 informally. Before IU students left for the summer, he’d been, talking to them until he was Crimson in the face about coming to games.

The good news: Season ticket sales are up across the board.

But he still has to coach the DiNardo holdovers, make the seeds of talent grow in the infertile Bloomington soil, and ultimately, win more than a game or two.

He’s not seeking excuses nor asking for time. “This isn’t my team three years from now,” he says. “It’s my team now.”

He’s got the right pedigree, especially for Indiana. He’s a Hoosier from Woodburn, near Fort Wayne. He played for and later coached with Red Faught at Franklin College. Red was, of course, known for “Air Faught,” the pass-happy offenses that made the Grizzlies a highly enjoyable Saturday afternoon experience.

He comes from Miami (Ohio) University, the “Cradle of Coaches,” where he paid his dues for years as an assistant and cashed in on his chance when he became the head coach. He went 48-25 with the RedHawks, repeatedly knocked off bigger-league foes (Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Colorado State, Louisville, Northwestern), finished the 2003 campaign 13-1 with a No. 10 national ranking and developed a pretty fair country quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger.

Hoeppner keeps good company. Fellow former Miami coaches Bill Mallory and John Pont are mentors. Mallory led the Hoosiers to six bowl games. Pont led the Hoosiers to their only Rose Bowl. Hoeppner also keeps good coaches. For example, he’s hired former Ball State University and DePauw University head coach Bill Lynch, as well as his son Billy Lynch, as assistants.

“Indiana’s a sleeping giant,” Hoeppner says. “We’re going to wake ‘er up.”

History be damned.

Benner is 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 email to

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