Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 26, 2007
By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY ó Indiana football coach Terry “Hep” Hoeppner was laid to rest in Bloomington on Saturday.
East Rowan assistant coach Roland Fowler and his wife, Judy, joined the overflow of mourners in spirit.
“He was a great individual,” Coach Fowler said. “He sent out a vibe that was just unbelievable. It’s a sad loss.”
The charismatic Hoeppner died at 59 of complications from a brain tumor. But he touched thousands as he ascended the coaching ladder.The Hoeppners and Fowlers were close friends when “Hep” was getting a toehold on the bottom rung of that ladder in Mullins, S.C., a football-crazy town 60 miles south of Fayetteville.
The population of Mullins was 5,000, but there were more than that in the stands on Fridays. Tailgate parties were plentiful.
When the Mullins Auctioneers took on their bitter rival, the Marion Swamp Foxes, attendance swelled to 10,000. It was too tight to breathe in the bleachers.
“It was Kannapolis-Concord,” Fowler said. “When you played at Marion, you did your warmups before you rode over there. You knew the fans would be throwing eggs at you.”
Fowler was raised on a tobacco farm in Mullins, grew strong from harvesting crops and starred for the Auctioneers in the early 1970s. There were about 30 on the squad, so the country boy played both ways ó linebacker and right guard.
“And special teams,” he added with a laugh. “I came off the field twice. Halftime and game over.”
He was a good enough linebacker to head to Clemson, but he tore up his knees his freshman year.
He came back home for classes at nearby Francis Marion and Darlington Tech, got married and embarked on a 22-year journey in the insurance business.
In 1976, Fowler met the newly hired Mullins football coach at church and in rec league basketball games. His name was Hoeppner.
Hoeppner had been a college standout for the Franklin Grizzlies in his home state of Indiana and graduated in 1969. A year later, he was the head coach at Marion’s Eastbrook High.
He coached at Eastbrook three years, then gave pro ball a whirl. He played a bit with the Detroit Wheels and Charlotte Hornets of the World Football League.
Hoeppner ended up at Alabama high schools next, as an assistant at Pinson Valley and Hueytown.
The next stop was Mullins.
Hoeppner had one official assistant at Mullins, so he enlisted the aid of volunteers. One was Fowler.
“He asked if I could help out with varsity, but especially with the jayvee team,” Fowler said.
Hoeppner installed a wide-open passing attack, brand new to Mullins, and offensive records fell.
“We gave Terry a hard time when our jayvees started 6-0 because he’d already lost two games,” Fowler said. “But he made the playoffs and had a great season.”
It was easy to see bigger, better things ahead.
“Terry had a lot of football knowledge, but mostly he was a motivator,” Fowler said. “They’d run through walls for him. The kids trusted him, knew he believed in them. When someone can get the last ounce out of kids like he could, you knew he was going places.”
The friendship between the Fowlers and Terry and Jane Hoeppner warmed over three Mullins football seasons. The Fowlers didn’t have children yet; the Hoeppners had three. So the Fowlers “adopted” Amy, Allison and Drew.
There were cookouts and a trip to the drive-in theatre in Dillon to see “Grease.”
“That wasn’t exactly our cup of tea,” Fowler said, “but the wives really liked it.”
But Hoeppner was still a Hoosier at heart. He couldn’t say no when East Noble High in Kendallville, Ind., offered him a head job.
“I remember it was December, Terry and his wife went back to Indiana to look for a house, and we kept their kids for a week,” Fowler said. “We had a ball with them picking out a Christmas tree.”
East Noble led Hoeppner to the college ranks, first as an assistant at Franklin, then 13 years as an aide at Miami of Ohio.
His break came in 1999 when he got the Miami head job. He went 48-25 in six seasons, took teams to bowls, coached quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and became a hot commodity nationally.
Indiana, seeking respect after decades in the Big Ten dungeon, hired Hoeppner on December 17, 2004.
The Fowlers also were on the move. They relocated to Salisbury from Mullins in 1984 when Roland got a promotion with Liberty Life Insurance.
Fowler returned to coaching at East, first assisting Tom Eanes. He’s also served on the staffs of Will Orbin, Jim Crawley and Brian Hinson.
The Fowlers and Hoeppners didn’t lose touch. Roland celebrated each small step his friend took in the coaching ranks, culminating with his hire by the Hoosiers.
From his first day in Bloomington, Hoeppner was the same fireball he’d been in Mullins when he was three decades younger. He led conditioning runs, hollered at pep rallies, spoke to every civic group about restoring Hoosier pride.
He made tangible progress at Indiana quickly. The Hoosiers won four in 2005, five in 2006.
Hoeppner’s pet slogan ó “Play 13” ó was on the lips of every fan. That meant a bowl game in 2007.
He had a 3-ton chunk of limestone placed in an end zone and had people calling Memorial Stadium “The Rock.” Enthusiastic alumni were pouring in funds. New facilities were approved.
His dream was coming together, but Hoeppner didn’t get to see it completed.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor 18 months ago, he had taken three medical leaves. But he was strong enough to lead the Hoosiers through spring drills, and there was cautious optimism.
Then on June 15, Bill Lynch was named interim coach. Four days later, Hoeppner was gone.
“It was a shock,” Fowler said. “He’d seemed to be getting somewhat better.”
The bad news reached the Fowlers via phone calls, ESPN and the IU Web site.
They’ve sent cards but haven’t called Jane Hoeppner yet. In a week or so they will, once she’s had a chance to absorb the surge of emotion from an entire state.
The good news is Hoeppner lives on, in every player and every coach he inspired.
“I’m just thankful I had the opportunity to know someone like him,” Fowler said. “Hep is in a better place now, and he’s probably coaching.”
Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.