KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Todd Hoffner had to watch from afar as Minnesota State had the best season in school history, a remarkable run by his players under a different coach to the national semifinals.
That was two years ago, his career in shambles and his future uncertain.
Now, after a full exoneration of child pornography charges, Hoffner is back on the Mavericks’ sideline, leading the program through a new best season. Minnesota State plays Colorado State-Pueblo on Saturday at Sporting Park in Kansas City for its first Division II championship.
“You have to move forward,” Hoffner told The Associated Press this week, reflecting on his long, difficult and often embarrassing journey. “You try to learn, you try to be better daily as a coach, and that’s very important to have that kind of mindset. But there’s nobody having more fun than I am. When you’re away from the game, you appreciate it that much more.”
Not just way from the game, though. Banished from it.
While the child abuse scandal at Penn State was unfolding in August 2012, Hoffner was ordered off the practice field eight practices into fall camp when a technician repairing his university-issued phone found family videos of his naked children. A county judge dismissed the case, but school officials ultimately decided to fire Hoffner the following spring.
He took a job at Minot State in North Dakota, but the faculty union at Minnesota State filed a grievance on his behalf, and an arbitrator ruled for an immediate reinstatement.
As if his path to reach that point had not been bumpy enough, Hoffner returned to find players revolting. Angry with the way they had been kept in the dark by administrators, the team refused to take the field for the first day of practice this past spring.
“During this whole time, all we heard was what we heard through the news,” defensive end Josh Gordon said. “The next day we had a meeting with Hoffner, we expressed our feelings, and we put that in the past and decided we would just play.”
Especially since the Mavericks had some bold aspirations.
Under the coaching of Aaron Keen, who took an assistant job at Eastern Michigan when Hoffner was reinstated, the Mavericks had gone 24-2 over the past two seasons. Many of their best players would be back, including Gordon, who was voted a second-team All-American this week.
“The day we didn’t practice, we decided as a team, whatever happens — old coach stays, we get a new coach — in the end, we play for each other,” Gordon said. “We felt we had been successful the past two years and now you’re changing things. But we just decided we were playing for each other.”
Besides, it wasn’t as if Hoffner couldn’t coach. He’s the one who took a program that had one winning season over the previous 13 before his arrival in 2008 and built it into a powerhouse. The Mavericks are 14-0 this season, beating Pittsburg State in overtime to open the Division II playoffs then knocking off Minnesota-Duluth and Concord to reach the title game.
They’ll be facing a team from Colorado State-Pueblo with its own intriguing backstory.
The school, then known as Southern Colorado, shuttered its football program along with those of several other sports in a cost-saving move in the early 1980s. The program remained disbanded until 2007, when former quarterback John Wristen was brought on as its coach.
Selling nothing but a patch of dusty earth where a stadium would one day stand, Wristen rebuilt the program from the ground up. And after three years of playoff disappointments, the ThunderWolves will also be chasing their first Division II national championship on Saturday.
“I’m telling you this, we’re going to Kansas City to win this ballgame,” Wristen said. “I know if we don’t give it our all and don’t play our tail ends off, we’ll have unfinished business for the rest of our lives. Unfinished business means to win, not to be there and compete, but to go win.”
Colorado State-Pueblo has done plenty of that lately. The program that didn’t exist a decade ago is 47-4 since 2011, upsetting Sam Houston State — which was playing in Friday night’s FCS semifinals — earlier this season. And since a one-point loss to Fort Lewis in October, the ThunderWolves have not been beaten, knocking off Angelo State, Ohio Dominican and West Georgia in the playoffs.
“People say going to the national championship is the pinnacle of your career. For the seniors, it hasn’t sunk in,” defensive end Darius Allen said. “We’re playing a great team. I know they want a championship too. This is their first time having a chance to be a champion, so I know they’re going to come out just as strong. We’re more focused rather than excited about the moment.”
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