Hoeppner continues to inspire Indiana on and off the field

They'll meet before kickoff Saturday at midfield and talk for awhile, just like countless other coaches before countless other games across the country, yet unlike all the rest.

No two coaches anywhere else will have the same conversation as Indiana's Bill Lynch and Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald.

No two coaches could, and no two coaches want to.

Lynch and Fitzgerald didn't choose the circumstances that bond them, yet they are inextricably linked because only they know the path the other has walked and the burden unique to that road.

On June 19, Lynch got the same telephone call Fitzgerald had received 355 days before.

Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner had died that morning after battling brain cancer since December 2005.

Lynch had had more time to prepare for that shock than Fitzgerald did the previous summer, when, on June 29, the news of Northwestern coach Randy Walker's death from a heart attack stunned the college football world.

Nothing really prepares anyone for the unrelenting reality of a good man gone too soon, however.

Fitzgerald and Lynch have learned that much in leading the programs they inherited to a matchup critical for both schools' postseason hopes.

Indiana (6-4, 2-4) should be enjoying the afterglow of qualifying for a bowl with a 38-20 victory over Ball State last week, but it cannot.

The cruel irony is that even though the Hoosiers have waited since 1994 to be bowl eligible and since 1993 to receive another postseason bid, six victories might not be good enough to end the latter drought this season.

That's because all but one team in the Big Ten is at .500 or better with two weeks remaining in the season, and each has a realistic shot at six victories and accompanying bowl eligibility.

Northwestern (5-5, 2-4) is one of those teams, and it might have to defeat Indiana on Saturday (ESPN Classic, noon ET) and win on the road at Illinois next week to get a bid.

It doesn't seem right that two programs that have endured so much might be left without a postseason dance partner, but the bowl scouts in loud sport coats don't look as lustfully at triumph-over-tragedy stories as they do fan bases with proven travel records.

In a conference with seven bowl tie-ins beyond the BCS games, Indiana and Northwestern therefore could be jilted wallflowers left behind after more alluring commodities like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Purdue, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan State are taken.

Lynch and Fitzgerald won't talk about that Saturday, because to do so would indulge self-pity, and neither has trafficked in that even one day in the aftermath of the unenviable challenge each was handed.

"Our programs are very similar," Lynch said. "Their foundation was set with Randy and ours with Terry -- two guys who worked together for a long time at Miami [Ohio]. We're certainly carrying on what Terry started here, and Pat has done a really good job of continuing what Randy instilled there."

Fitzgerald reached out to Lynch this past summer when Hoeppner died.

"We [talked] a little bit about communication and how we tried to help our players and the Walker family through a very difficult time last year," Fitzgerald said. "If there's one man I know that's going to get that thing [to achieve Hoeppner's goals], it's going to be Bill Lynch."

Unlike Fitzgerald, whom Walker was grooming to be the head coach at Northwestern some day, Lynch didn't expect to wear that whistle ever again.

He made that choice when he left Division III DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., after going 8-2 in 2004. That's when Hoeppner left Miami (Ohio) to take over at Indiana and dialed up a guy he had been competing against since their college days.

Back then, Hoeppner played at Franklin and Lynch at Butler. Eventually, both ended up as assistants at their respective alma maters, and then the day came when both were head coaches in the Mid-American Conference -- Hoeppner in Oxford after Walker left for Northwestern, and Lynch at Ball State.

Lynch took a two-year detour in 1993 and 1994 to Indiana, assisting under Bill Mallory, so he had an affection for Bloomington when Hoeppner called to dangle the job of assistant head coach and offensive coordinator.

The fact that Lynch's son, Billy, had been coaching under Hoeppner at Miami and was coming to IU was only part of what drew Lynch to accept.

"The attraction was, I couldn't say no to Hoepp," Lynch said. "No one could. He wasn't the kind of guy to take no for an answer. He was just one of those guys who, the way he treated people, his enthusiasm, all those things made me want to come here and get this thing built back up to where it was."

Hoeppner dove into the morass of IU football with a strategy for every shortcoming.

No tradition?

No problem.

He had a three-ton limestone boulder moved into Memorial Stadium and dubbed IU's home "The Rock," challenging his players to defend it.

Before every home game, the Hoosiers marched through tailgating fans on "The Walk" to inspire enthusiasm.

Hoeppner buried Bloomington under an Uncle Sam-style, "Coach Hoepp Wants You," campaign to bolster sagging ticket sales.

And he made "Play 13" a mantra for players charged with ending the longest bowl drought in the Big Ten.

Then, one day not long after his first season, Hoeppner's persistent headaches were too intense to ignore, and just that suddenly, the signature mind-set he had strived to instill in his players was no longer just a motivational verse on a wall.

"The poem, 'Don't Quit,' that was on our team meeting room wall," Lynch said. "It was one of the very first things Terry put up when he got here."

The first stanza reads:

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but do not quit.

"That was Terry a long time before he got sick," Lynch said. "He really believed in that poem. Our kids watched him live that poem. That's been a lesson to them as much as anything else. We all have slogans and phrases and poems and stories about how life relates to someone else. But when he talked to them for the last 15 months or so of his life, he was in the front of the room with that poem over his shoulder. They're looking at him, and they're looking at that poem, and they're seeing him live it.

"He never complained. He never made excuses. He always kept the same positive attitude. That's why, when he passed away, it was such a shock to the kids, because he was such an optimist and such a positive person that nothing could beat him. To watch him live that way was powerful. There's no doubt in my mind it's made us a closer football team."

Closer doesn't necessarily mean better.

To improve on its 5-7 record from 2006, Indiana needed more consistency from quarterback Kellen Lewis, the same monstrous production from wide receiver James Hardy and signs of life from a defense with no discernable pulse.

Lewis has struggled with turnovers, but he can be electric when under control. He ranks second in total offense (300.6 yards), passing for 23 touchdowns and rushing for five more with his team-best 587 yards on the ground.

Hardy has reached the end zone in all but one game this season, and his 13 touchdown catches are four more than any other receiver in the Big Ten.

Kicker Austin Starr is 17-of-18 on the season and 8-of-8 beyond 40 yards.

Sophomore defensive end Greg Middleton leads the conference and is second in the nation with 13.5 sacks, and linebacker Will Patterson and cornerback Tracy Porter have proved to be playmakers at the second and third levels.

"The defense has done a wonderful job," Hardy said. "The past couple of years, honestly, we thought we had to score 50 to win. But those guys have taken a leadership role on this team and made it easier on all of us."

The Hoosiers' MVP, though, might be Hoeppner's widow, Jane.

Her late husband didn't own all the moxie in their marriage.

He died on the day IU was to break ground on new facilities for the football program and several other sports, so there she was, lending support to the cause amid unspeakable emotional pain.

"She's been the same way throughout the whole season," Lynch said. "She comes to practice. She sees the kids. She's been to games. She's been unbelievable."

"I don't know if I've ever met a woman as strong as she is," Hardy said. "She's a very special lady. She shows us every week that she's still behind us. It means a lot to us. Even though coach is no longer here, he's here through her. She lets us know that he's smiling down on us and that the job is not done. We still have to get a couple of more wins to get ourselves in position for a really good bowl game."

Bruce Hooley has covered the Big Ten for more than two decades and now is the host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.