In Terry Hoeppner, Indiana University finally had its guy.
An Indiana native who thought this was a destination job, not a stopover. A guy who looked at an ugly and neglected stepchild program and saw the start of something beautiful. A guy who had the zest, the drive and the people skills to spread enthusiasm to a fan base that hadn't cared for decades -- if ever.
And now Hoeppner is gone, after dying Tuesday morning of complications from a brain tumor. The school kept Hoeppner's condition shrouded in secrecy for months, so everyone feared the worst -- especially given the coach's upbeat public battle with cancer in 2006. Tragically, those worst fears were justified.
While the most significant grieving is certainly being done by Hoeppner's family, friends, players and co-workers, you have to feel for the hard-luck entity that is IU football, too.
Of all the bad breaks, bad losses and bad hires over the past decade-plus, this is clearly the worst. Sometimes the Hoosiers and football misery just seem destined to be together.
Over the past 60 years, Indiana has had 11 football coaches. Every one of them left the school with a losing record. That includes John Pont, who took the Hoosiers to their only Rose Bowl appearance in 1967; Lee Corso, who went on to a television career you might be familiar with; Sam Wyche, who led the Cincinnati Bengals to a Super Bowl but couldn't lead IU past 3-8; Bill Mallory, who had six bowl games sandwiched between an ugly start and an ugly end; and current Miami Dolphins head coach Cam Cameron, who had the most exciting player in school history (Antwaan Randle El) and still went 18-37.
Hoeppner joins the list of losing records at 9-14, but that hardly tells the story. With his laying the foundation and challenging the systemic inertia and general apathy that was suffocating the program, there was reason to believe times were changing.
I spent time with Hoeppner on Election Day 2004. That night, his Miami (Ohio) RedHawks were playing Toledo in a game controversially scheduled to coincide with the ballot counting in Bush versus Kerry. Keenly aware of the negative publicity attached to hosting that game, Hoeppner deftly turned it into a positive by having his entire team register to vote, then marching to the on-campus polling precinct en masse that morning.
"The football team that votes together wins together," Hoeppner crowed, then started lobbying to play again on Election Day 2008.
He was a piece of work. And he seemed perfect for a program that needed a whole lot of work.
For some reason, Indiana has lacked the football fan following and on-field success of rival Purdue to the north. The Woodburn, Ind., native never understood that disconnect, and never saw a reason why it had to stay that way.
In only two seasons, Hoeppner became Indiana's most important building block since Anthony Thompson was the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1989. The coach's cartoonish exuberance triggered a 39 percent surge in attendance his first year, and a 117 percent increase in student ticket sales. All the students who used to tailgate pregame and then go home at kickoff actually started making their way into the stadium.
Hoeppner did his best to turn Memorial Stadium into something other than a mausoleum, nicknaming it "The Rock" and having a three-ton limestone boulder deposited behind the north end zone. In a state known for shooting the rock, "Defend The Rock" became a rallying cry.
IU didn't defend much of anything last year, giving up nearly 33 points per game. But it was more competitive than it had been in years, entering the final week of the season with a shot at a bowl game.
That might not sound like much at most schools. But this is Indiana we're talking about.
Indiana hasn't gone to a bowl game since 1993 -- the longest bowl-less streak in the Big Ten -- and hasn't had a winning season since '94. The only BCS conference school with a longer bowl drought is Vanderbilt, which hasn't seen the postseason since 1982. Even Duke and Baylor have gone bowling more recently than Indiana.
Heck, last season marked the first time since '94 that the Hoosiers entered November with a winning record. A three-game losing streak to end the season kept them home again for December, but optimism was high for 2007 and beyond.
It will be a challenge for the Indiana players to sustain that momentum after this tragic loss. It will be a challenge for interim coach Bill Lynch -- a former head coach at Ball State from 1995 to 2002 -- to sustain Hoeppner's grand plans and great enthusiasm.
If ever there were a schedule tailored for a breakthrough season, this is it. The Hoosiers play neither Ohio State nor Michigan, and could go undefeated against a nonconference schedule of Indiana State, Western Michigan, Akron and Ball State. In fact, IU has a shot at a 4-0 start for the first time since 1990.
The Hoosiers certainly have a memory to rally around. But inspiration can be fleeting, and it's a safe bet that Indiana will miss Terry Hoeppner badly -- this year and for several years beyond.
He was the rare right fit at a school that rarely gets it right in football.
Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.