MANKATO - Finally, Todd Hoffner had a Saturday to celebrate.

For the first time in more than three months, the head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato woke up clear of the felony child pornography charges that had turned his life upside down.

Hours later, his undefeated Mavericks kept their national championship dreams alive by defeating Missouri Western 17-10 to advance to the NCAA Division II semifinals.

But Hoffner wasn't there to see it.

Even though a judge on Friday dismissed criminal charges stemming from two videos Hoffner recorded in June of his three young children dancing naked and touching themselves, an ongoing university investigation kept him off the university campus -- as it has all season. So instead, Hoffner spent the day at home in nearby Eagle Lake, watching his team's victory on a computer.

Although Hoffner was absent from the Blakeslee Stadium sidelines Saturday, he was on the minds of many.

As scores of Maverick fans draped in the purple and gold school colors braced against the December chill and readied for the noon kickoff, many expressed sympathy and support for their 46-year-old coach, who hasn't set foot in the stadium or talked with his assistants since he was escorted from the practice field by university officials in August and told he was being put on investigative leave.

Some, like Gina Cooper of Lake Crystal who watched with her husband, Tom, and their children, Jacob and Lauren, both 7, were "just relieved" for Hoffner and his family.

"I'm glad it turned out the way it did," said Jean Sik, a Mankato resident and 1986 graduate of the school.

"It's a heck of a lot better outcome than the opposite," said Mike Downs, MSU class of '86. "It's pretty much one of the worst things I can imagine you can go through."

Others were quick to criticize the Blue Earth County attorney's office for prosecuting at all.

"I think he's been wronged," Tom Cooper said. "The district attorney took it way too far."

The videos, found when Hoffner turned in his malfunctioning, campus-issued cellphone to the school's IT department, were the only evidence presented at the time of his arrest. Subsequent searches of his home computers and video equipment, interviews with his children, and investigations into cell and computer records at other colleges where he had coached turned up nothing to support the charges.

"They screwed up," said John Swenson, a Mavericks fan from Elysian. "I have pictures of my boy when he was young and in the bathtub. Who doesn't have those? It's so inappropriate what they did to the coach."

Prosecutor Mike Hanson, who argued that the images in the videos crossed the line between innocent family fun and lewd behavior, could not be reached for comment Saturday. But in a written statement Friday, he defended his office's pursuit of the case, saying it was "trying to enforce a statute enacted to protect children."

But in her strongly worded ruling, District Judge Krista Jass said the videos of the children performing a skit showed nothing lewd, sexual or pornographic, but merely children "dancing and acting playful after a bath."

Becky Vosburg, a North Mankato resident and 1982 MSU graduate, wondered if prosecutors were influenced by the child sex-abuse scandal at Penn State University that cost head coach Joe Paterno his job and sent former assistant Jerry Sandusky to prison.

"If we wouldn't have had the Sandusky thing a year ago, I don't think they would have been as quick to judge him and prosecute him," she said.

Hoffner said Friday that he wants to return to his job. But that can't happen until the university reinstates him.

Given Jass' ruling Friday, some fans wondered why that hasn't already happened, and speculated that further delay or a decision not to reinstate Hoffner could lead to legal action by the coach.

On Friday, university officials said only that Hoffner's paid-leave status had not changed because of the pending investigation.

"You'd think they'd come out with a big statement from the president or somebody saying he's innocent and we welcome him back with open arms," Tom Cooper said. "But they didn't. And it makes me wonder what's going on there."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425