MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The football coach fired from Minnesota State, Mankato announced Tuesday that he will return to the job after an arbitrator ruled he was wrongfully terminated, saying the decision wasn’t easy but that it would help him and his family heal.
Todd Hoffner was fired last May for reasons undisclosed at the time. But the dismissal came after he was cleared of child pornography charges stemming from images of his children on a work-issued cellphone, accusations that Hoffner called the “most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“I believe that resuming my duties as head football coach will help heal that injury,” he said during a tearful news conference in which he took several breaks to compose himself. He said the last two years have been a “nightmare,” but that he always wanted to coach at Minnesota State, Mankato.
“I’m not interested in revenge. … I’m not a spiteful person,” he said, but added that the situation could have been handled differently.
Hoffner was hired in January as head coach at Minot State, and he said he would be “forever grateful” to the North Dakota school for hiring him when he thought he might never coach again. But he said he decided to go back to Mankato for simple reasons.
“My family lives there, we have roots there, I helped grow the program to a national power,” he said.
He plans to resume his duties in Mankato on Wednesday.
Hoffner, 47, was escorted off the practice field in August 2012, then arrested and charged with child pornography after university staff found images of his naked children on a work-issued cellphone. But a judge dismissed the charges three months later, saying the videos depicted only innocent images of children acting playful after a bath.
His supporters said the school overreacted in the wake of the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, noting his high-profile arrest came just months after retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse.
“Two years ago I sat in a jail cell overnight in an orange jumpsuit wondering why. First there was shock, then there was fear, then there was anger and … I pulled myself together,” Hoffner said Tuesday. “We had unwavering support from a lot of people.”
Although the charges were dismissed, the school suspended Hoffner for 20 days and then reassigned him to an administrative role before firing him last May.
Hoffner said he views his return as a chance to renew old relationships. When asked if he was nervous to go back into an environment where he was wrongly accused, he said any awkwardness would pale in comparison to what he has already been through.
“I can handle it,” he said.
The university released a statement welcoming Hoffner back as head coach.
“We extend our apologies to Mr. Hoffner and deeply regret the difficulties he and his family have experienced,” the statement said. “It is our sincere hope that all concerned can now find ways to move forward.”
Hoffner’s civil attorney, Christopher Madel, said someone needed to be held accountable.
“What has been done to this family … is wrong,” Madel said.
Hoffner is exploring all of his legal options, and attorneys would be watching to ensure university officials do not retaliate against him, Madel said. He declined comment when asked whether the university offered Hoffner money to refuse reinstatement. University spokesman Dan Benson also declined comment, saying “when settlement discussions occur, they are confidential information.”
Some of the reasons for Hoffner’s firing were outlined last week in the arbitrator’s decision, which is not public information but was obtained by The Free Press of Mankato.
According to the newspaper, the ruling said among other things that university President Richard Davenport wrote in a letter that Hoffner was being fired for viewing pornography on his work computer and for allowing his wife to use the device.
The arbitrator said Hoffner denied using his computer to view porn and several people had access to the device, so there was no proof to that allegation. There was evidence Hoffner’s wife had used the computer, but that was not grounds for termination, the arbitrator found.
Hoffner’s criminal attorney, Jim Fleming, said Minnesota State was ordered to give Hoffner his pay with interest going back to when he was fired, as well as for his 20-day suspension, and to pay the difference in his salary if he decided to work elsewhere for less.
His contract at Minot State called for him to earn $90,000 a year and ran through June 2015. Hoffner’s current four-year contract with Minnesota State, Mankato, is roughly $105,800 per year, and runs through June 2018.
Minot State athletic director Rick Hedberg said the school wished Hoffner the best and hoped for closure for him and his family, but “we are disappointed that doesn’t involve Minot State.”
Hedberg said the school will move forward quickly to find a replacement. He has said there was nothing in Hoffner’s contract to block him from leaving, and the university had no contingency plan for that possibility.
Minot State became an NCAA Division II school in 2009, after transitioning from the NAIA. The Beavers finished last season 2-9.
Minnesota State finished 11-1 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament under interim coach Aaron Keen. The Mavericks were 34-13 in Hoffner’s four seasons there, from 2008-2012. Hoffner also coached the Mavericks to three Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference South Division championships — in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
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