MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — The first day Todd Hoffner came back as Minnesota State’s head coach, the job he was banished from for two seasons, the team refused to take part in spring practice.
If Hoffner took offense, he didn’t reveal it. The unwelcomed and unplanned sabbatical prepared him well for this type of minor setback.
Of all the controversies experienced by college football teams around the country, there was none quite like this. Forced out on child pornography charges, Hoffner received legal clearance to return following a full exoneration.
After going 24-2 under interim coach Aaron Keen, the Mavericks were suddenly apprehensive about a regression. They read a statement to reporters explaining the boycott that raw April afternoon, with Hoffner watching a few feet away. The atmosphere was about to become awkward at best or toxic at worst.
By the next morning, after a meeting with players, coaches and the athletic director, order was restored. Hoffner promised to be a better communicator and less of a stickler than before his leave, assuring the team he was committed solely to its success. Players said their initial revolt was not personal, only bold support for Keen.
“The abruptness of the situation lent for some difficulty and challenges and the fear of not being able to have their same coach,” Hoffner said in an interview last month, proceeding to spell out his hopes for the season: “Trust one another, believe in one another and have a common purpose that we’re working toward the same thing and not working against each other.”
The turbulence has subsided. The bad feelings have been pushed out of the way. Now the Mavericks are poised to keep making headlines in 2014 — hopefully, for their performance on the field.
“Every team says at the beginning of the year, ‘Oh, we want to win a national championship,’ but they might be like 3-8,” linebacker Kris Fleigle said. “For us, it’s a realistic goal.”
The Mavericks had just one winning record (6-5) over 13 seasons until Hoffner was hired in 2008. Since then, they’ve gone 58-15, qualified for the national playoffs four out of six times and been Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference champions twice.
“It’s absolutely night and day different from when I first got here,” said running back Andy Pfeiffer, a Mankato native who has proudly seen an increase in MSU interest among local high school prospects: “It’s like a goal. Before it wasn’t as much on the map.”
National attention for Minnesota State has usually come from the Vikings, when the NFL team holds training camp in this riverside city’s campus on the edge of prairie farmland. Or from confusion with the fictional team led by Craig T. Nelson in the 1990s sitcom “Coach.”
Then there was the drama.
Hoffner, recently given a new contract with a raise, was ordered off the practice field one day in August 2012. With the abuse scandal at Penn State as a backdrop, Hoffner was placed on leave when naked videos of his children were found by a technician repairing his university-issued phone. Keen took over, and the Mavericks had the best season in program history, reaching the national semifinals.
Hoffner contended the images were simply of kids acting silly after a bath. The case against him was dismissed by a county judge. The school, which reassigned Hoffner to an administrative role while conducting its own investigation, fired him the following spring.
With his family nearly out of money, Hoffner accepted the head coach position last season at Minot State, an NSIC school in North Dakota. The faculty union for MSU staff filed a grievance on his behalf, and an arbitrator ruled for immediate reinstatement. So Hoffner moved back to Minnesota to retake his old post. Keen got an FBS job as an assistant at Eastern Michigan, but most of the staff stayed intact.
The 21 seniors on the roster have helped smooth the transition.
“He asks us for feedback,” offensive lineman Chris Reed said. “He’s trying, and I think people can see that.”
Hoffner has used his experience has a teaching tool, a reminder of rewards that can come from refusing to quit, but the greatest motivational message for the players has been provided by former teammate Isaac Kolstad.
“Looking at what Isaac went through and comparing to what I went through, I have nothing ever to complain about,” Hoffner said.
Beaten nearly to death during an altercation outside a Mankato bar in May, Kolstad has survived his head injuries to the point where he stopped by practice recently and did some drills for fun. He was asked to lead the team on the field Thursday for the opener against rival St. Cloud State, which handed the Mavericks their first and only loss last year, 54-48 in the national playoffs.
“I’m getting goose bumps right now just thinking about it,” cornerback Patrick Schmidt said earlier this week.
This “hidden gem,” as Hoffner viewed the program prior to his arrival, is being re-polished this fall by the lessons on perseverance, control and gratitude learned by coaches and players.
“I like to stand up for what I think is right,” Hoffner said. “Being back here was something that I always had planned on doing.”
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