Josiah Sears is more than five years removed from the day he and his Indiana University teammates received word that their coach was gone.
Terry Hoeppner, a Franklin College graduate and long-awaited pillar of hope for a Hoosiers football program mired in generations of mostly disappointment, had lost a spirited battle against brain cancer two months short of his 60th birthday.
Indiana players were in the midst of conditioning drills when then-interim coach Bill Lynch drove to Memorial Stadium on the warm June day to deliver the news. Streaks of perspiration soon blended with tears on the faces of many young men, the Hoosiers’ dependable fullback and team captain among them.
“The thing I appreciated most about coach Hoeppner was his genuineness. What you saw on television is the same as he was in person,” remembered Sears, 27, in his fifth season as an assistant football coach at Franklin College, his mentor’s old stomping grounds both as a player (1966-69) and defensive coordinator (1980-85).
The Sears File
Name: Josiah Sears
Job: Co-offensive coordinator, Franklin College football
Family: Wife, Lyndee; daughter, Tinley, 1
High school: 2003 Greenfield-Central graduate
College: 2007 Indiana University graduate
Favorite TV show: “Modern Family”
Favorite food: Jack’s Pizza
Favorite movie: “Christmas Vacation”
Favorite athlete: Gale Sayers
Favorite team: Indianapolis Colts
Favorite Colts players growing
up: Eric Dickerson and Peyton Manning
“Being here, I think about him more often than I probably would,” Sears said. “I think more about her (Hoeppner’s widow, Jane) than I think about him because I know he’s OK. He definitely placed his trust in God.
“Coach was a positive person the first day on the job and a positive person his last day on the job.”
It’s difficult not to notice parallels between Sears and the man who helped shape certain aspects of his life. Sears, too, was born on Indiana soil, is a man determined to live his daily life by Christian principles and, like Hep back in the day, is regarded a rising star in the coaching ranks.
“I’m constantly learning from him. Josiah is so wise well beyond his age,” 10th-year Franklin College coach Mike Leonard said. “He attacks every job he does relentlessly. I want to see him go fly. I don’t mean to put pressure on him, but I could see Josiah being a Hep type.”
Leonard viewed Sears as a Grizzly type during their initial meeting. But that’s a different story.
The IU experience
The only child born to Mike and Melia Sears accomplished about everything one could at Greenfield-Central High School, excelling academically while earning varsity letters in football, basketball and baseball.
Sears’ bruising, between-the-tackles running style produced 1,730 yards rushing in his senior season of 2002 for a 7-2 Cougars squad. The numbers caught the eye of then-Hoosiers football coach Gerry DiNardo, who persuaded the 6-foot, 220-pound workhorse to come to Bloomington.
After redshirting in 2003, Sears played in every one of IU’s games the following season, primarily on special teams. His role progressed as a ball carrier in 2005 (25 carries, 103 yards), his first year playing for Hoeppner after DiNardo was fired. His role expanded further in 2006 (40-232), his second and last season under Hoeppner. In his one season under Lynch (2007), he ran for 114 yards and amassed 147 yards receiving and six touchdowns.
Leonard and Hoeppner knew one another and were good friends, their common Franklin College ties always fertile ground for conversation. One day while attending a Hoosiers practice, Leonard noticed Sears, the fullback whose 100-percent-all-the-time manner made him stand out, whether he was carrying the football or blocking for a teammate.
“I’m watching practice in the spring of 2007, and I jokingly told him that he would look good in blue and gold. Josiah goes over to Hep and says, ‘This guy is trying to recruit me,’ and Hep yells back, ‘You can have him,’” Leonard said, laughing. “Right then you could see the kind of personality Josiah had.”
A few months later, Hoeppner passed away. Sears graduated from Indiana University in December, his entire adult life in front of him. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he wanted attempt to make a living coaching football.
Now the big question: Where?
Hello coach Leonard
Sears remembered Leonard and in the summer of 2008 placed a call. There were no vacancies in Franklin College’s program, but Leonard, noticing something special about the young man, asked him to be the Grizzlies’ running backs coach on a volunteer basis.
“He was phenomenal,” said Leonard, whose 2008 team enjoyed an 11-2 season and was ranked eighth in the final d3football.com Top 25 poll. “I could tell his mind was sharp and that if he had the drive, he could run the offense.”
Leonard now had to figure a way to keep Sears in Franklin’s colors by way of a salaried position. The school’s administration agreed and formulated a job in which Sears would work as an assistant football coach, assistant men’s and women’s track and field coach and be responsible for the academic progress of the football program.
In football, he’s co-offensive coordinator in charge of skill position players, particularly the quarterbacks. During track season, Sears works with the sprinters. Year-round the two-time All-Academic Big Ten selection remains passionate about helping athletes turn C’s into B’s and B’s into A’s.
Not surprisingly, Sears, who is back to his high school playing weight of 220 after getting up to 245 his senior season at IU, tackles all three job descriptions with equal vigor.
“I really do believe that if you’re focused on the relationships, you’re doing your job right,” Sears said. “If you’re worried about the name on your shirt, you’re doing it for your ego.”
One day the phone will ring, and Josiah Sears will be presented an offer he won’t be able to refuse. A chance to move up. A Division I assistant’s job, perhaps. The proverbial foot lodged in the doorway of big-time college football.
Maybe it’s next month. Maybe it’s five years from now. It should be noted that Hoeppner, at 23, became head coach at Eastbrook High School near Marion; was 29 when he took over the Mullins (S.C.) High School program; was 33 his first year as a Franklin College assistant; and 39 when named linebackers coach at Miami of Ohio. He went on to become Miami’s head coach before accepting the same job at IU.
For his part, Sears has time on his side.
“I’m here until I’m not. I’m committed to the players here and to the program,” he said. “I love it here. Coach Leonard is an extremely positive person, a coach who always keeps the players’ mindsets in the right place.”
At least one Bloomington resident continues to follow Sears’ career arc. Just as her late husband had years earlier, Jane Hoeppner carries the highest possible opinion of Sears, having now seen him blossom as a coach, husband, father and man.
“I remember Terry (saying) Jerome Bettis was called ‘The Bus’ in those days (and he) said, ‘We’ll call Josiah ‘The Church Bus’ because he’s such a nice kid,” she said, laughing. “It’s because of his character. The kind of person he is. By that, Josiah has put himself in a position to be a leader.
“Terry would just be so proud of him. How he’s a good husband and good father. And how neat is it that Franklin College is where he’s at?”