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Vindicated Mankato coach moves on from accusations

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MANKATO, Minn. — The lowest moments in his two-year battle are still painful for Minnesota State-Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner.

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“We were down to very little money,” Hoffner said, sitting in his dining room with his wife, Melodee. The family, he said, came perilously close to losing their home.

Hoffner tried to answer, at first uncomfortably, the many questions that still surround his legal and emotional roller coaster after officials at Minnesota State found naked pictures of his children on his school cellphone in August 2012. He was escorted off the practice field, and subsequently removed from his job.

“The goal always was for Todd to get his job back. (We) never wavered,” said Melodee, who still flashed her emotions as she recapped what had happened. “More people said, ‘You need to stay.’ (There were) a few that said, ‘What do you think about starting fresh?’”

The coach said that questions about what transpired might linger “only if you leave.’’

“There is no choice,” he said, “but to come back and face anyone and everyone.”

In court and on the field, Hoffner has been vindicated. He has his team back — the Mavericks began practice last week in preparation for their first game against Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival St. Cloud State on Sept. 4 — and the abandonment of last April when players briefly refused to play for him appears to be in the past. But an awkwardness remains.

The Hoffner saga went viral nationally in the wake of the sex scandal at Penn State involving a former assistant coach. Child pornography charges were filed against Hoffner, and then dismissed when a judge determined the pictures simply showed children at innocent play. But instead of reinstating him, school officials fired him, a decision reversed only when Hoffner won a sweeping arbitrator’s ruling last spring after he had accepted the coaching job at another NSIC school, Minot (N.D.) State.

There have been changes — at least on the surface. In an attempt to alter his image as a “hard-ass” coach, Hoffner said he has made some subtle concessions: He will allow loud music to be piped in during practices, and will let his assistants wear sunglasses. His players also will not have to always wear their helmets at practices.

And swearing, the subject of a nondisciplinary letter of expectations the coach received in early 2012, also has been addressed. “I can tell you that I have not sworn since I’ve been back,” he said. With the new school year, Hoffner also will see his pay rise slightly again, up nearly $5,000 to $105,809.

“I will not be trying to appease everybody,” he added. “In your attempt to appease everybody, you’ll appease nobody.”

Unexpected support

The long journey was not without its bright spots, which only now are coming to light. Former Marquette men’s basketball coach Buzz Williams — out of the blue — called Hoffner and last year paid for the Hoffners to go to Disney World. “(I told Hoffner), ‘You can go anywhere you want to go — just tell me,’ ” said Williams, now the coach at Virginia Tech.

Overcome by emotion as he recounted his reaching out to Hoffner, Williams said in a phone interview that he was devastated by what Hoffner had endured and that the image of police coming to “get you at your house, and arrest you — I just don’t get that.” Williams said he also invited Hoffner to Milwaukee last winter to a Marquette game, and had the Mankato coach attend a pregame team meeting.

Williams said he even called Minot State to help Hoffner get hired at the North Dakota school. “(I told Minot State), ‘He was wronged,’” Williams said.

Hoffner was hired at Minot State and then quit without ever coaching a game — leaving abruptly, and leaving the school less than pleased, when he got word he could coach again in Mankato.

Williams said that when he first called Hoffner, the Mankato coach had to be persuaded to accept the offer. “I’m giving it to you,” Williams said he told Hoffner. “We’re not going to argue about it.”

School officials mum

Hoffner found no such support among school officials, who just months before his problems had lavished him with praise — and a raise — after a 2011 season that ended with a bowl victory. Hoffner and his wife said they still cannot explain why key school officials were so quick to abandon them.

Others are equally baffled.

“How can you be so enamored with this guy, and then suddenly it just all goes sour. (Even) when the judge rules (to dismiss the charges), you don’t give up and you still try to crucify the guy,” said Casey Lloyd, the football team’s longtime radio voice.

Eight months before Hoffner was removed as coach in August 2012, school President Richard Davenport bragged in an email to Hoffner of having the football from a bowl game victory on his desk. The school’s vice president for finance — who would later be seen by the Hoffners as being particularly vindictive toward them — sent an email at the same time saying he was “very proud” of the “coaching job you and your staff have done.”

Melodee Hoffner added that she had been working with athletic director Kevin Buisman — Hoffner’s boss — on a fundraising drive for a local charity. Before their world changed dramatically, the Hoffners said they had attended Davenport’s wedding, as well as a graduation party for the children of Richard Straka, the vice president for finance.

Davenport, Straka and Buisman each declined to be interviewed for this story through school spokesmen.

Jim Fleming, Hoffner’s lawyer, said he still is baffled why Blue Earth County Attorney Ross Arneson — who did not seek re-election — pressed criminal charges against Hoffner even as evidence mounted that the case was thin. Instead, according to internal emails, Arneson argued that should Hoffner “accept responsibility for his conduct” the charges could be reduced to a misdemeanor. “If your client blames everybody but himself, then it is up to the court system to hold him responsible,” Arneson wrote.

Arneson did not respond to interview requests.

‘The elephant in the room’

There remain, in the end, almost too many oddities, loose ends and fractured relationships in Mankato to count.

Hoffner said in June he has not spoken to Aaron Keen, the assistant who became the interim coach and compiled a 24-2 regular-season record in Hoffner’s absence, since Hoffner came back and Keen left.

“I asked him, ‘Is this what you want?’” Hoffner said of Keen’s leaving. “People put a lot of drama into that.”

The team’s defensive line coach, Ron Planz, also had little to say after leaving in March for a head coaching job in Illinois. “I’m not really interested” in talking about Hoffner, he said.

Hoffner, meanwhile, said he has been straightforward with his team — especially the 23 incoming players Keen signed in February — and said that “less than a handful of guys” had left the program since his return. He said his approach in dealing with the team has been to talk directly about what occurred and identify “the elephant in the room.”

“I don’t try (to) dance around it,” he said.

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