MANKATO – The gawkers have moved on, one year after Minnesota State Mankato produced one of the messiest story lines in college football.
A head coach was abruptly removed amid hints of child pornography — charges that later were dismissed — but observers pointed and whispered and wondered what was happening on Minnesota’s oft-overlooked southern prairie.
The curious have moved on, but the players Todd Hoffner was forced to leave behind are making history. The Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks are 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation in NCAA Division II for the first time.
“I always thought we were going to be great eventually,” senior quarterback Jon Wolf said Saturday after his team dismantled Winona State 44-10. “I was part of the best recruiting class in school history. A national championship is what we’re focused on. I would be highly disappointed if we don’t at least get [to the national championship game].”
The Mavericks’ march to the top of Division II had been slowly building for a decade. Athletic director Kevin Buisman arrived in 2002, but the football team went 0-11 in 2003.
In 2008, Hoffner came aboard and amped up the recruiting, making Illinois a priority. Twelve players from that state are on the current roster, including Wolf and sophomore tailback Connor Thomas, the team’s two leading rushers.
Hoffner went 34-13 in four seasons and was preparing for his fifth last August when Buisman showed up at practice and summoned him to a private meeting. Hoffner initially was accused of possessing child pornography based on two videos on his school-issued cell phone depicting his own children — ages 9, 8 and 4 — dancing naked after a bath. The charges eventually were dismissed, but his days as Mavericks coach are over.
Aaron Keen, who had been offensive coordinator for one season, was named acting head coach about a week before last fall’s opening game. Buisman said it was Keen’s previous head coaching experience at Illinois College that made him the choice over defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman. Keen directed the Mavericks to a 13-1 record and a spot in the national semifinals, the best showing in school history.
“We were lucky to have the vacuum of football,” Keen said. “We wanted to concentrate on making sure our kids had an enjoyable time playing football here. I think because of that, they rallied around each other, they rallied around us and we rallied around them.
“It was a case of knowing what we had here and knowing nothing could destroy it and wanting to prove to the world that that was going to be the case.”
Fans slow to notice
Keen, who still carries the interim label while the university and Hoffner try to reach a settlement of his contract, appears to have an even better team this year. On Saturday, the Mavericks played their best game of the season to easily dispatch a Winona State squad riding a five-game winning streak.
The offense piled up 520 yards, with Wolf passing for three touchdowns and running for another. The defense tied a program record with nine sacks. Speedster senior Dennis Carter returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown and caught touchdown passes of 1 and 55 yards.
Still, the Minnesota River Valley is hardly awash in Maverick Fever. Ninety minutes before kickoff Saturday, the handful of locals in a sports bar across the street from Blakeslee Stadium were more fixated on the Gophers-Nebraska game being shown on TV than the contest about to take place in town. It was the Mavericks’ first home game since being elevated to No. 1 in the nation, yet drew the season’s smallest crowd of 3,211, less than half of capacity.
The student section was noticeably thin, prompting Wolf to wonder if the 1 p.m. kickoff might have come too early for his sleepy fellow students.
“It’s really hit or miss,” student association president Chris Collins said of support for the football team on campus. “Some people are really enthusiastic. Others are more focused on their academics. If we keep doing as well as we are, you’ll start seeing more students showing up.
“Even I didn’t really care about the team last year until they started winning.”
As for Hoffner, the coach left behind, he remains an uncomfortable topic. Those associated with the program mentioned his name in interviews, particularly crediting him for bringing an influx of talent to the Mavericks. But he’s clearly out of sight, out of mind.
Asked if the players still talk about their former coach at all, Wolf paused and finally said: “I’ll just leave it at no comment.”
But all praise Keen for the job he has done stepping into such an awkward situation.
“Coach Keen’s leadership has been unprecedented. I’ve never experienced anything like this,” senior defensive end Chris Schaudt said. “We couldn’t control what was in the media, the bad image being portrayed of the program. We just had our helmet and shoulder pads and had to go to work every day. And I feel like that really brought us together in terms of blocking out distractions, whether it be distractions from the media, distractions from the people on the street, in classes. And that carried over into the games.
“We definitely want to see how far we can take this now.”