Honoring 'Hep'

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The former Indiana coach, who died June 19 after a lengthy battle with brain cancer, is honored with a football-shaped "HEP" patch on the Hoosiers' uniforms and a banner with the same logo in the end zone, as well as a helmet sticker with the words "Play 13" -- a 12-game season plus a bowl game.

Hoeppner's rallying cry is closer to becoming reality. Indiana beat Ball State 38-20 last Saturday, giving the Hoosiers a sixth win that has them bowl eligible. As Hoeppner's widow reveled in the postgame festivities, she thought of Terry and a vision nearly realized.

"He absolutely knew it was going to happen and so [I was feeling] a lot of things at once," she said. "It was incredibly satisfying. It was exciting. It was bittersweet because how could he not be here in the middle of all this?"

Sophomore quarterback Kellen Lewis shared that understandably wistful demeanor: "They started chanting his name and you just feel special because you finally got what you always wanted to do," he said. "You just wish you would have gotten it done a year earlier."

"Play 13" is nearly a reality, and while the Hoosiers entered 2007 coming off a five-win season and possessed known talent like Lewis and wide receiver James Hardy, the work coach Bill Lynch has done in helping this team heal -- and excel -- amid a tragic loss should not go unnoticed.

"I can't say enough about the job he's done," Jane Hoeppner said. "I think [it's] nothing short of remarkable and I'm not sure there are many men that could have done it, honestly."

Lynch was promoted to interim head coach just four days before his friend of nearly 30 years died. While Lynch had 30 years coaching experience, and had led the Hoosiers during a two-game stretch in '06 after Hoeppner had his second brain surgery and through spring practice while Hoeppner took a medical leave of absence, this was far different.

You won't hear Lynch's name in coach-of-the-year discussions. He doesn't have the Hoosiers on the cusp of a BCS game or anywhere near the national title conversation, but you can argue that no coach has had a more ardent task to deal with this season, which makes the on-field success all the more impressive.

Paramount for Lynch as he stepped into Hoeppner's shoes was keeping the status quo in the program. The philosophies wouldn't change, nor would the team's goals. This was still Hoeppner's team and Lynch was going to lead it in exactly the same manner.

"It was really easy in the sense that we all believed in the message so much," Lynch said. "I think that's what's important. Obviously he brought an enthusiasm and a passion for football here that was contagious, and as a staff we all came with him and from the start we all certainly believed in what he was doing and how he was doing it and the message."

While Lynch has worked to maintain the foundation that Hoeppner built, so to has Jane Hoeppner. She still watches the games from her usual suite in Memorial Stadium, or "The Rock," as her husband dubbed it upon taking over at IU. She typically accompanied her husband during his press conferences and regularly attended practice. She continues to be a stabilizing force a link to the coach who helped breath life into this long-suffering program.

"I think it is important for the players to have that connection, because I'm the connection to him," she said. "Me being around isn't something that looks unusual to them because it was just like it was with Terry because he welcomed me to be a part of it and wanted me to."

And so Jane was there during the season opener against Indiana State, being escorted, along with her family, to midfield by Indiana president Michael McRobbie. After a moment of silence, she wiped away tears as a video showed highlights from her husband's two years in Bloomington.

The Hoosiers went on to win that game, 55-7, part of a 3-0 opening run. Six weeks in, they were 5-1, having only lost to Illinois. But much like last season, when the Hoosiers lost their last three games and missed out on a bowl game, Indiana again found itself slumping as it lost three straight to Michigan State, Penn State and Wisconsin. But the team didn't question its goal, or its ability to reach it.

These players had been through much worse than a mere three-game losing streak.

"I think there's a maturity to this team and I think they have really stuck together and become a pretty close team," Lynch said. "I gotta think because of the adversity they went through with Hep had a lot to do with that."

While Indiana managed to snap the losing streak against Ball state, and put itself in good position to end its bowl drought, Lynch says Hoeppner wouldn't have been satisfied with the accomplishment of merely being bowl eligible.

"He would have been the first guy to downplay that game and [say], 'We've got to get on to the next one' and 'Bigger things are ahead for this team,' " Lynch said.

The Hoosiers will go for win No. 7 Saturday at Northwestern, a game that will pit Lynch against the only coach who can truly understand what he's dealing with this season -- Pat Fitzgerald, who succeeded Randy Walker after he died of a heart attack before last year.

Lynch knows as well as anyone that Indiana needs to pad its win total to secure a bowl bid. He was an assistant on Bill Mallory's Indiana staff in 1993 and '94. That '94 team, which went 6-5, did not receive a bowl invite. Lynch has his players believing that there's still work to do against Northwestern, and a week later, Purdue.

"We know all about how being bowl eligible doesn't mean you get the bowl game you want or you get a bowl game," Lewis said. "We know that eight wins, that's definitely in a bowl game."

While Hoeppner is honored with patches on the Hoosiers' jerseys, stickers on their helmets and banners inside Memorial Stadium, it's that postseason berth that Lewis believes would be the most fitting tribute to a charismatic coach who saw Indiana as a destination job, not a mere layover to something bigger and better.

"It's something he set out to do and that's why you gotta go out and play every game like it's your last, cause obviously before the season we thought he'd be here to see this," he said.