He hadn’t slept much on Wednesday night, after the turmoil of his first day back at Minnesota State Mankato. Todd Hoffner rested much easier before a fresh start dawned on Friday, but his 10-year-old son, Brady, couldn’t wait to get him out the door.
“I actually got a chance to sleep in,’’ the Mavericks football coach said. “But the kids didn’t have school, and they came in and jumped on the bed. And my son said, ‘Get to work.’ ’’
Hoffner laughed about that exchange on Friday afternoon, as he watched from the sidelines during his team’s practice. Getting back to work as MSU’s football coach is all Hoffner has wanted to do for the past 20 months, since he was suspended and later fired by the university. After a false start Wednesday, when his players refused to practice following his reinstatement, Hoffner stood in the sunshine and quietly got reacquainted with the business of building a team.
The Mavericks concluded their third week of spring practice Friday under coach Aaron Keen, who led them in Hoffner’s absence and remained the man in charge on the field. With the spring game a week from Saturday, Hoffner said he will be content to observe during his first days back at the helm of the program. That didn’t diminish his satisfaction in being outfitted again in a purple windbreaker and the title of Mavericks head coach.
“No transition in a situation like this is going to be perfect,’’ Hoffner said. “But it’s a great opportunity for me to evaluate, assess and observe. Those are three things I really want to accomplish in spring ball.
“These young men have been through a lot. I think they have a lot of resolve. They have tremendous leadership, and I’m excited to be part of everything that’s going on. I really wanted to continue into the future and hope to make it better.’’
Hoffner was removed as coach in August 2012 after videos of his naked children were discovered on his university-issued cellphone. Charges related to the incident were dropped when a judge ruled the images were innocent play, but the school still fired him the following May.
An arbitrator last week ordered him reinstated as coach. Hoffner resigned from the head coaching job at Minot State, which he accepted in January, and announced Tuesday he would return to the Mavericks. The players refused to take the field Wednesday for what would have been his first practice, saying they wanted Keen to remain as coach; after Hoffner assured them he would adapt to the program’s “shift in culture’’ under Keen, the team welcomed him back and resumed practice Friday.
Keen will remain with the program as associate head coach. While he ran Friday’s workout, Hoffner greeted Mavericks boosters and football alumni, getting an enthusiastic hug from former athletic trainer Gordy Graham as he approached the practice field. Hoffner also was seen talking with recruits and showing them the stadium.
Player spokesman Sam Thompson said Thursday the team did not mean to undermine Hoffner by not practicing Wednesday. But players wanted to air their concerns about his return, and they hoped to establish better communication. Senior defensive lineman Barry Ballinger agreed that the players could have handled the situation better, but he was confident there will be no lingering hard feelings.
“People came out here with no negativity, having fun, with smiles on their faces, just like we did on Monday,’’ he said. “We sat down and talked as players, and what it comes down to is just getting out here and playing football.
“Hopefully, it’s going to run smoothly. We’ve just got to stick together through all this stuff.’’
Hoffner said he was excited to resume work with a team that went 24-2 during his two seasons away. He had set the stage for its success, compiling a 34-13 record in four seasons before Keen took over as interim head coach.
The Mavericks finished 11-1 last fall and were ranked No. 1 in NCAA Division II when the season ended with a loss to St. Cloud State in the playoffs. Hoffner said he may spend the spring game mingling with supporters in the stands, reconnecting with the many people who stood by him through his hard times.
This fall, Brady will get to work, too, as a ball boy for his father’s program. That thought — of his son beginning a life on the sidelines, and of himself resuming his place there — brought Hoffner another smile on a day full of them.
“It’s awesome,’’ Hoffner said of the backing he has received. “But it’s always about the players. The goal is to be national champions, and that’s something we don’t want to waver from. Whatever it takes to get there, that’s what we’re going to do.’’