Hoeppner celebrates big wins over Iowa, brain tumor
Many coaches talk a good game, but in surviving a lifetime of hardship in the span of two years, Terry Hoeppner is teaching his players the true meaning of success, writes Mark Schlabach.
For nearly two years, Indiana football coach Terry Hoeppner was never sure what life was going to throw at him next.
But before the Hoosiers played No. 15 Iowa on Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Hoeppner knew exactly what was coming for a change.
So Hoeppner never stopped believing, even after the Hoosiers fell behind 21-7 early in the second quarter. Behind the combination of freshman quarterback Kellen Lewis and sophomore receiver James Hardy, who accounted for all four of Indiana's touchdowns, the Hoosiers rallied again for an improbable 31-28 win.
"I wasn't surprised," Hoeppner said Sunday. "We were playing pretty well. But with the way we'd been practicing, I was like, 'When are we going to start really playing?'"
It was Indiana's first victory over a top-15 team since beating No. 9 Ohio State on Oct. 10, 1987, and came less than four weeks after its coach underwent brain surgery for the second time in nine months.
The Hoosiers have won consecutive games and improved to 4-3 going into Saturday's game at No. 1 Ohio State. Indiana lost three games in a row in September after Hoeppner announced he was undergoing additional surgery to ensure a tumor hadn't re-formed in his brain.
"It was kind of motivating," Lewis said. "He had the brain surgery. He had the cancer cells in his brain. That's life or death. All we had to do was prepare for a football game."
The victory was a welcome milestone for Hoeppner, who has spent the past two years trying to rebuild one of college football's worst programs while dealing with an overwhelming dose of tragedy.
In April 2005, Hoeppner's father died after a lengthy illness. Five months later, Red Faught, his beloved coach at Franklin College in Indiana, died at the age of 81.
In December, while still grieving the loss of two of the most important people in his life, Hoeppner began suffering headaches during a trip to Cleveland to watch Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, his former star pupil at Miami, play against the Browns.
The day after Christmas, Hoeppner underwent tests in Bloomington, Ind. Doctors found a malignant tumor, and Hoeppner had brain surgery the next day. Hoeppner spent much of the winter recovering, but the cancer was gone and he was back at practice in the spring.
Then in June, Roethlisberger, who remains very close to his former coach, was badly injured in a motorcycle accident. Later that month, tragedy blindsided Hoeppner again. Northwestern coach Randy Walker, his mentor at Miami, died suddenly of a heart attack at 59. Hoeppner spoke at Walker's funeral and says he still hasn't come to grips with the loss of his dear friend.
"It's still a tough one to believe," Hoeppner said.
On the field, Hoeppner's challenge seemed insurmountable to outsiders. The Hoosiers have long been the doormats of the Big Ten Conference and haven't had a winning season in 11 years. Hoeppner's first team won just three games, but it showed promise. He assembled an above-average recruiting class in February, and thought the pieces were in place to be more competitive this year.
Indiana won its first two games, against Western Michigan and Ball State. The Hoosiers were playing well, but Hoeppner knew they could be better. Then, during one of Hoeppner's routine health checkups in September, doctors noticed a change in the area of his brain where the tumor had been removed. Doctors told him the tests indicated either a recurrence of the tumor or, everyone hoped, scar tissue.
So, days before the Hoosiers were preparing to play their third game, against Division I-AA Southern Illinois, Hoeppner called a team meeting and announced he was undergoing a second brain surgery and would be absent for a couple of weeks. He had the surgery Sept. 13.
"It was my wife's birthday, and she got scar tissue for her birthday," Hoeppner jokes now.
Hoeppner was alert and talking hours after his surgery, but doctors said he would need two to four weeks to recover. He held a staff meeting in the hospital's critical care unit the day after his surgery, and handed over the head coaching duties to assistant head coach and offensive coordinator Bill Lynch.
With Hoeppner watching from a luxury suite at Memorial Stadium, the Hoosiers lost consecutive home games, 35-28 to Southern Illinois and 14-7 to Connecticut. Hoeppner was back the day after his team lost to the Huskies, only two weeks after his surgery, and was determined to save his team's season. The Hoosiers were routed by Wisconsin 52-17 in his first game back on the sideline.
"I just didn't want my situation to be a distraction," Hoeppner said. "How much of it was me being gone? I don't know. I tried to tell the players not to use it as an excuse. I know it sure didn't help when I came back against Wisconsin."
While dealing with their coach's health, the Hoosiers also were hampered by concerns at quarterback. Junior Blake Powers, who set a school single-season record with 22 touchdown passes in 2005, was injured in the opener against Western Michigan. Senior Graeme McFarland started the next week against Ball State but was hurt early in that game. So Lewis, who was redshirted last season and hadn't played in a college game, came in and rallied the Hoosiers from a 23-7 deficit to a one-point victory.
Lewis, from Jacksonville, Fla., was the last player to join Hoeppner's first recruiting class at Indiana. Lewis had been recruited by Florida to play defensive back or receiver, but the Gators dropped their interest when coach Ron Zook was fired. Wake Forest visited him a few weeks before signing day, all but offered him a scholarship and said it would call the next day. The Demon Deacons never called. The only Division I-A school that offered Lewis a scholarship to play football was Eastern Michigan. Lewis said he didn't want to play that far from home.
Left with nowhere to go, Lewis was resigned to playing at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia last season. He already had been accepted to the school when the Hoosiers called. Hoeppner offered him a scholarship in July 2005, and he enrolled at Indiana the following month.
"The only thing I knew about Indiana was its basketball team," Lewis said. "I knew the football team wasn't very good. I didn't even know they played in the Big Ten."
Hoeppner said Lewis played well enough during spring practice and preseason camp this year that the coaching staff installed a "slash" package for him, in hopes of taking advantage of his mobility and athleticism. In six games, Lewis has completed 53.4 percent of his passes for 1,138 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He also has run for 193 yards and three scores.
Powers and McFarland are healthy again, but Hoeppner said he has no intention of taking Lewis out of the game.
"Coming into the season, I didn't know if I could compete well enough to be the starter," Lewis said. "I haven't woken up from the dream."
Neither has Hoeppner, who says he'll keep dreaming when the Hoosiers play the Buckeyes on Saturday. At least his nightmare is over.
"It's not something you ask for," Hoeppner said. "But I've said it and I'm sincere about it, it's been a blessing in disguise. The effect it's had on people has been amazing. As a coach, you talk the talk, and now I'm walking the walk. You're always telling people, 'You can overcome things.' That's sinking in now. As coach Walker used to say all the time, 'It's how you respond.'"
On the Mark
Off the Mark
Bad injuries. These players are done for the season and will be sorely missed by their teams: Oklahoma tailback Adrian Peterson (broken collarbone), Georgia tailback Thomas Brown (torn ACL), Navy quarterback Brian Hampton (dislocated knee).
On the Mark
Running back tandems. Texas A&M's Jorvorskie Lane and Mike Goodson (192 yards and two touchdowns vs. Missouri). Ohio State's Antonio Pittman and Chris Wells (101 yards and two touchdowns vs. Michigan State). Maryland's Keon Lattimore and Lance Ball (190 yards and two touchdowns vs. Virginia). Auburn's Kenny Irons and Brad Lester (161 yards vs. Florida). West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton (410 yards and five touchdowns vs. Syracuse). And one trio: Arkansas' Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith (293 yards and five touchdowns vs. Southeast Missouri State).
Off the Mark
The melee in Miami on Saturday night was one of the worst scenes in college football history. I have defended Miami coach Larry Coker on several occasions in this space because we believed he was running his program the right way and had cleaned up the Hurricanes' image.
But the bench-clearing brawl in the third quarter of Miami's 35-0 win over Florida International was the third ugly incident involving the Hurricanes in their past seven games. Miami players scuffled with LSU players after the Tigers' 40-3 win in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta at the end of last season. On Sept. 16 at Louisville, Miami stomped on the logo at midfield in Papa John's Stadium, then got stomped by the Cardinals.
The ACC suspended 13 Miami players for their actions in the brawl, and the Sun Belt Conference suspended 18 Florida International players. Both conferences say more sanctions are possible. At least Duke now has a fighting chance in Saturday's game against Miami.
The ACC should ban the Hurricanes from playing in a postseason bowl game as punishment -- much like Clemson and South Carolina did after those teams fought during their 2004 finale. The hot-tempered Hurricanes probably wouldn't enjoy Boise, Idaho, in December anyhow.
On the Mark
Hot quarterbacks. Texas A&M's Stephen McGee (19-for-23 for 183 yards and one touchdown vs. Missouri). LSU's JaMarcus Russell (15-for-18 for 226 yards and two touchdowns vs. Kentucky). Ohio State's Troy Smith (15-for-22 for 234 yards and two touchdowns vs. Michigan State). Michigan's Chad Henne (15-for-30 for 196 yards and one touchdown vs. Penn State). Texas' Colt McCoy (21-for-32 for 275 yards and six touchdowns vs. Baylor). Florida State's Drew Weatherford (16-for-24 for 231 yards and four touchdowns vs. Duke). Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko (11-for-15 for 172 yards and two touchdowns vs. Central Florida). Oklahoma State's Bobby Reid (23-for-35 for 411 yards and five touchdowns vs. Kansas). Purdue's Curtis Painter (35-for-49 for 431 yards and two touchdowns vs. Northwestern).
Off the Mark
Virginia Tech and Georgia have been mirror images of each other this season. Maybe it's because I used to work as the beat writer for both teams. Or maybe it's simply because they're not as talented as they've been in the past.
The Hokies were humbled by Georgia Tech two weeks ago, and the Yellow Jackets seem poised to thump the Bulldogs in their Nov. 25 finale. Both teams have inexperienced quarterbacks, and both have struggled to run the football. Both defenses came into the season with lofty reputations, but both have struggled to stop even the most pedestrian of teams.
Both teams have talented freshman quarterbacks waiting in the wings: Virginia Tech's Ike Whitaker and Georgia's Matthew Stafford. Neither team is going to play for a conference championship this season, so perhaps the future is now.
On the Mark
Unlikely conference showdowns. Georgia Tech goes to Clemson on Saturday, a game that might be a preview of the Dec. 2 ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla. The Yellow Jackets lead Virginia Tech by 1 1/2 games in the Coastal Division and own the tiebreaker over the Hokies. Clemson has a half-game lead over three teams in the Atlantic Division and probably has less room for error, with improving Wake Forest and Boston College still lurking.
Meantime, Rutgers, one of three unbeaten teams left in the much-maligned Big East, plays at surging Pittsburgh on Saturday. The Panthers are 6-1, and their only loss came in a late collapse against Michigan State. They've won four games in a row by an average of 35.5 points. Sophomore LaRod Stephens-Howling, a 5-foot-7 tailback, had 356 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the past two games.
"We're just ecstatic with how far we've come, but we're humble and know what we've got to do to stay on this course," Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades said.
Off the Mark
Don't get us wrong, Smith is a great player and has provided enough highlights to make him one of the four or five finalists invited to New York in December. It certainly doesn't hurt that he's the quarterback of the country's No. 1-ranked team. But where's his competition?
Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson broke his collarbone Saturday against Iowa State and will miss the rest of the season. Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe, a dark horse candidate and sentimental favorite, was held to only 25 yards on 18 carries in a 16-14 loss to Western Michigan on Saturday. Michigan's Mario Manningham is still out after undergoing knee surgery last week, and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn is still trying to recover from the beating he took from the Wolverines. Auburn tailback Kenny Irons' campaign for the award never got started as he struggled with injuries and SEC defenses.
On the Mark
Off the Mark
NC State's two-minute offense -- and defense. Leaving Peterson in the game during a blowout. Gary Pinkel's fake field goal try. Illinois' two-minute offense. Chris Leak's gaffes. Alabama's struggles. North Carolina coach John Bunting's job security. Virginia's second-half collapse. Memphis. Fresno State. Marshall. Texas Tech.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.