December 7, 2007

A season to believe: Faith helps Bill Lynch lead Hoosiers during emotional ride of loss and hope

Indiana University head football coach Bill Lynch leads the celebration in the Hoosiers’ locker room after IU’s last-minute win over Purdue University on Nov. 17. The win capped an emotional season for the team, which was rocked earlier in the year by the death of its previous coach, Terry Hoeppner. (Photo by Paul Riley, IU Athletics)

Indiana University head football coach Bill Lynch leads the celebration in the Hoosiers’ locker room after IU’s last-minute win over Purdue University on Nov. 17. The win capped an emotional season for the team, which was rocked earlier in the year by the death of its previous coach, Terry Hoeppner. (Photo by Paul Riley, IU Athletics)

By John Shaughnessy

Bill Lynch kept smiling as “A Season to Believe” overflowed its emotional peak, pouring out raucous cheers, raw tears and a moment of prayer that everyone there will never forget.

On that night of Nov. 17, the Indiana University head football coach stood in the Hoosiers’ locker room, savoring every second as his players celebrated their dramatic, last-minute 27-24 victory over Purdue University—a win that cemented IU’s invitation to a bowl game for the first time in 14 years.

Eight days later, Lynch returned to the setting where his dreams of football glory and his life as a Catholic began: Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis.

As the 53-year-old Lynch prepared to speak at a benefit dinner for the parish school on Nov. 25, he smiled at the memory of playing on sixth- and eighth-grade football teams at Christ the King that won Catholic Youth Organization championships.

He also recalled the thrill and the joy of being the starting quarterback on a team at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis—just across the street from Christ the King School—that went undefeated in the 1971 season.

Back home in his first parish, Lynch marveled at the journey his life has taken, including the emotional ride of the past two years when illness and inspiration, loss and hope, and death and faith raced along together at nearly every turn for the extended family of the IU football program.

For Lynch, those two years have been marked by watching a close friend battle a life-threatening disease, helping a team of 105 players try to deal with the death of a coach they loved, and leading those young men through the devastating sorrow to a season that would reveal their heart and honor the coach they lost.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” Lynch said. “There were a lot of tough times and a lot of good times. It’s been a time where a lot of people learned some life lessons.”

A story to break—and warm—the heart

As nearly every sports fan in Indiana knows, the story of the IU football program the past two years revolves around Terry Hoeppner. It’s a story that equally breaks your heart and warms it.

Known fondly as “Hep,” the energetic, extroverted, emotional coach sought to reverse the losing tradition of IU football by inspiring his players to “Play 13”—his code phrase for achieving a winning season that would allow the team to play in a bowl game, an extra game that would be its 13th of the season.

“Hep” arrived with that goal in his first season at IU in 2005. After that season ended, he faced another challenge when he was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. His fight against cancer—and his courage in trying to keep coaching—continued for about 18 months until he died on June 19, 2007.

The emotion of that experience stays with Lynch, who was hired as an assistant coach by Hoeppner in 2005, and became the interim head coach for this season.

“Obviously, the good Lord doesn’t always give us what we want,” Lynch said. “He challenges us in a lot of different ways. Obviously, that was the ultimate challenge for the Hoeppner family, and when I say family, that spills over into the football family. There were a lot of times as a football team we prayed together and we prayed for him.

“Terry was a guy of great faith. His wife is a person of great faith. At the very end for Hep, Jane came to talk to the team. She did a marvelous job of talking about his faith, and her faith that there’s a life after this. It was very moving and emotional to everyone who was there. There’s nothing more adverse in our lives than when death is near. We knew we had to rely on the strength of faith.”

The foundation of faith

As the Hoosiers began their 2007 football season, Lynch made two moves that would help to set the tone for the games that stretched ahead.

The first move involved asking the players how they wanted to remember Coach Hoeppner. The players requested two tributes. They wanted a small patch on their jerseys that said “Hep.” They also wanted a decal on their helmets that had the number “13” and the words “Don’t Quit” above it.

“Terry was a guy of great character and integrity. He was also a guy of a lot of sayings and messages,” Lynch said. “One of them was the poem, ‘Don’t Quit.’ I’ve known Terry since 1980 and I heard him speak a lot of times. He always finished his talks with that poem. He would recite it off the top of his head. That was long before he got sick. But to see him live that out when he had his brain tumor was a tremendous example for our kids. He lived it out all the way to the end.”

The other move that Lynch made was more subtle. It’s a move that was noticed and admired by one of the team’s chaplains, Dominican Father Stan Drongowski.

“Bill switched the time of chapel from Friday evening after dinner to Saturday morning,” said Father Stan, who is also the associate pastor of St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington. “I asked him why. He said, ‘These guys need to know what’s most important. It’s not about winning a football game that day. It’s about performing in life, and faith being the foundation for that.’ ”

That message speaks to the heart of the way Lynch leads his life. Yet he does it in a way that never brings attention to himself.

He starred in football and basketball at Bishop Chatard, earning honors as the Indianapolis City Male Athlete of the Year in 1972. He continued that success in both sports at Butler University in Indianapolis. But he doesn’t mention those accomplishments. And he’s never sought credit for IU’s success this season. Any reference he makes to success is a team one.

“He wants the publicity for other people, not him,” said Bill Michaelis, a longtime friend who coached Lynch in football in grade school.

Michaelis then shared a story that he believes reveals the essence of Lynch.

Making a detour on a honeymoon

The story occurred earlier this fall when Michaelis traveled from Indianapolis to a Bloomington bar to listen to Lynch talk about the team on his weekly radio

program. When Lynch sat and talked with Michaelis after the program, the coach was approached by a young man who was there with a young woman.

“This fellow came up to him,” Michaelis recalled. “He said they were driving back from their honeymoon in Florida when he was passing through Bloomington and he heard Bill on the radio program. He said he was a student when Bill coached at Ball State. I got the impression that Bill had done something for him at some point. The young man said he stopped by to wish Bill luck.

“All of Bill’s questions were toward the young man: What’s he doing now? What’s his wife is doing? He didn’t mention IU football at all. He’s a very generous

person. He does a lot of charity work and work in the community that people don’t know about. A lot of coaches have an ego. He doesn’t.”

Dick Dullaghan is considered one of the greatest coaches in Indiana high school football history. He talks in awe about Lynch—who he coached at Bishop Chatard—as a competitor and as a person.

Dullaghan remembers a phone call he received from Lynch’s mother, Sally, during the summer before her son’s senior year in high school. She was worried he was pushing himself too hard.

In an era when weightlifting wasn’t mandated by coaches, Lynch started his summer mornings by taking a bus to downtown Indianapolis to train at a gym. Then he returned home to mow lawns most of the day. Then he threw footballs for a few hours. Then he ran home to grab a quick meal. Then he laced his sneakers and went to play basketball for several hours.

“He did it six days a week. His mother was afraid he was going to lose weight and get sick,” said Dullaghan, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Indianapolis. “He was so respected by everyone in the school. He had a great rapport with all the guys. They loved him.”

That admiration continues.

“He’s such a quality person,” Dullaghan said. “I’ve run summer football camps forever. In the summer of 2001, I wasn’t ready to run my football camp because I was recovering from an operation to remove my prostate. Bill came and ran the camp for me for free. There’s really nothing he wouldn’t do for a friend or someone who needed help. He cares about the players that way, too.”

Father Stan marvels at how Lynch treats his players: “He’s just an amazing role model for these guys. I’ve never heard him speak negatively to the guys or demean them. He’s a man of profound faith. I see it in his actions. His family is front and center in his life. His wife, Linda, is a partner in the true sense of the word—in marriage and in faith.”

The love of an extended family

A father of four, Lynch showed that focus on family when one of his seven grandchildren was born in Lafayette, Ind., on a Thursday, two days before a game this season.

“On Thursday nights, you’re nervous. The game is just 48 hours away,” Lynch said. “My wife and I drove up there in a rainstorm to see the baby. That put things in perspective. You talk about winning and losing. You see a little grandson a couple of hours old and that makes you realize a football game isn’t all that important.”

Lynch says he especially learned that lesson five years ago during one of his toughest moments as a coach.

“I got fired from Ball State in December of 2002,” he recalled. “At the time, my mom had had some heart problems for years, but she was doing good. She got sick in the spring of 2003. I was free to spend a lot of time with her. She passed away that spring. I was thankful for the time. This profession can get so time-consuming that maybe you don’t take the time or have the opportunity to spend the quality time you should. I did then. You never know what God’s plan is for you.”

The funeral Mass for Lynch’s mother was at Christ the King Church. Eight years earlier, the church was also the setting for the funeral Mass for his father, Bill. Lynch and his three sisters attended Christ the King School as students. Lynch’s wife and her seven siblings from the Lux family also attended the parish school. Bill and Linda were married in the church. Their first three children were baptized at Christ the King Church.

“You talk about growing up in Christ the King [Parish] and growing up Catholic,” said Lynch, now a member of St. John the Apostle Parish in Bloomington. “We learned respect, we learned honesty, we learned discipline and, most importantly, we learned about our Catholic faith. It was a real family environment: the family you lived with at home, and everyone you went to school with and church with. Family is so important. Any time you go through adversity, you rely on family to get you through.”

A moment of emotion and perspective

Adversity confronted and taunted the IU football team on Nov. 17 in its annual grudge match against Purdue. After leading 24-3, IU saw its lead disappear in the closing minutes as Purdue tied the score at 24. Winning the game and earning the goal to “Play 13” seemed to be slipping away in a painful, devastating way.

Still, the players had the inspiration of “Hep” and his constant reminder of “don’t quit.” They also had the faith of Lynch, who has had a gift for leadership since his days at Christ the King School.

“He wasn’t a quiet leader,” recalled Rick Lux, Lynch’s lifelong friend, his former teammate and the best man at his wedding. “He was a guy in sports who was demanding. If you were on a team with him, he had high expectations for himself and getting the most out of everybody.”

The Hoosiers persevered, kicking a 49-yard field goal for the win in the last minute.

After the celebration on the field, the team returned to the locker room for a scene that Lynch, Father Stan and everyone there will never forget.

“The first thing they did was say the ‘Our Father’ as a team,” Father Stan recalled. “They did it in the midst of a lot of tears. Tears of joy. I was witnessing it through tears also. It was profoundly moving. Bill was on his knees praying. We all were.”

Lynch remembered “Hep” and the extended family they both shared.

“It was emotional,” Lynch said. “It was really, really neat to watch the kids. To me, I can take the perspective Hep would take. Both of us have been through a lot of big wins and tough losses and life lessons. You hopefully get to a point in life where you don’t live and die with winning and losing. You understand there’s a bigger thing going on in life—that God has a plan for all of us. And it’s our responsibility to give the very best we have on a daily basis.”

Lynch paused, trying to put everything in perspective one more time—including his new, four-year contract at IU and his team’s invitation to the Insight Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., on Dec. 31.

“I thank God every day for the opportunities I’ve been given, for the family that I have,” he said. “All is not guaranteed. That’s why we have to do the very best we can each day, lead by example and look after each other. Faith and family go hand in hand.”

They are the lasting lessons from “A Season to Believe.” †

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