Hoeppner's death is a loss for all of football

Updated: June 19, 2007, 6:54 PM ET
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

On the day Indiana University hired Terry Hoeppner as its football coach, his counterpart at Northwestern, Randy Walker, warned his staff.

Terry Hoeppner
AJ Mast/Icon SMITerry Hoeppner had Indiana on the road to respectability.

"Better buckle it up, boys," Walker said. "Indiana will be a force to be reckoned with now that Terry's in charge."

Two-and-a-half years later, both are gone. Almost a year after Walker died of a heart attack, Hoeppner lost an 18-month battle with brain tumors. He died Tuesday at 59, his work in Bloomington undone.

"Coach Walk was very fond of Terry," Walker's successor, Pat Fitzgerald, said on the phone Tuesday morning. "They were very close. Terry was Randy's defensive coordinator. Coach Walk knew the type of coach that Terry was. He had great passion for teaching and coaching."

Walker and Hoeppner worked together at Miami (Ohio), and their friendship grew even as Hoeppner worked for Walker over their last nine years together. They remained close after Walker departed for Northwestern. He turned over stewardship of his alma mater's football program to Hoeppner, who maintained the RedHawks' success after Walker departed.

When a tall, skinny Ohio prep quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger couldn't sustain the interest of Ohio State, Hoeppner bet on him as Miami's future. That's the same Roethlisberger who played quarterback for the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2005. Forget the 57 victories and the '03 Mid-American Conference championship Hoeppner's teams won in his eight seasons. His nurturing of Roethlisberger alone proves the man knew his way around a practice field.

It is impossible to say whether Bill Lynch, the steady hand who has been leading the Hoosiers since last spring, will continue to lead them down the path to Big Ten respectability. It is also well down the list of things to do, according to Fitzgerald. The first thing Hoeppner's staff must do is get the team through the summer.

"You have to do a good job of listening to the players," said Fitzgerald, the former Wildcats All-American whom Northwestern promoted in July to replace Walker. "For a lot of kids, it's their first time going through anything tragic, or their first time dealing with death. That's our job as coaches, to help them grow as a man."

It seems safe to say that however Lynch leads the Hoosiers, he won't duplicate the passion Hoeppner used to bring Indiana so far so fast. Anyone who spent more than, oh, five or six seconds with Hoeppner would be awash in his enthusiasm.

"Coach Walk was very fond of Terry. They were very close. Terry was Randy's defensive coordinator. Coach Walk knew the type of coach that Terry was. He had great passion for teaching and coaching."
-- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald

Hoeppner went 9-14 in two seasons at Indiana, and rarely does a record mislead as much as that one. The Hoosiers defeated No. 15 Iowa last season, Indiana's first victory over a top-15 team in 19 years, and came within a close final-game loss to Purdue of qualifying for a bowl game. One of the many legacies Hoeppner leaves is the pairing of quarterback Kellen Lewis and wide receiver James Hardy. Together, they are one of the most exciting duos in the game.

Remember, we're talking about Indiana, where accomplished coaches such as Cam Cameron and Gerry DiNardo tried and failed to succeed. Hoeppner receives an incomplete. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who resuscitated the Badgers from a football coma in the early 1990s, appreciated how Hoeppner had revived the Hoosiers.

"He was going to make it work," Alvarez said. "It's all about the attitude of the guy that's leading it. If he mopes around, that's what's going to happen. If you go at it with a passion, the kids react to it, the fans react to it. He wasn't losing kids. Guys weren't getting disgruntled and leaving. When you do that, the kids are going to get better. You get rolling and you get better players."

Bloomington will miss Hoeppner's vibrancy. So will we all. Nearly a year after Walker's death, Fitzgerald politely recoiled when asked when his team returned to some sense of normality.

"I get asked that question a lot," he said. "It never goes back to what normal was. Terry won't be back. Neither will Coach Walk. You have to use lessons they taught and their values and their spirit. The hard thing is you can't go back and ask them questions and get a direct answer. That's the hard thing."

Walker and Hoeppner are together again, and it's a sad day for college football.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com