MANKATO - Minnesota State University's undefeated football team -- the one built by Todd Hoffner -- ended a rollercoaster week on a slate gray Saturday afternoon with another big victory, and with Hoffner again nowhere to be found.
The football coach who has the school's best winning percentage since the 1930s has not been seen since summer at Blakeslee Stadium, or on the nearby, emerald green practice fields. Hoffner has of course been busy trying to convince a city and a judge, not to mention a national media audience, that the videos of his naked children that he took with a school cellphone do not constitute pornography.
So he missed Kyle Riggott's 67-yard reception to set up the Mavericks' quick 7-0 lead. He also missed defensive end Chris Schaudt's juggling 40-yard interception return that helped put the team up 17-3 before halftime.
And he missed Aaron Keen, who has at least temporarily replaced Hoffner as coach, steering the team Saturday to a 10-0 record, a lofty NCAA Division II ranking and a surprisingly easy 27-13 victory over Sioux Falls.
"Let things that have happened in the past go behind us," Keen told the team after a practice early in the week. "When you come out to practice, you focus on football every day."
To help that happen -- and keep away any media swirl -- the athletic department has tried to wrap the team in a bubble. Requests by out-of-town media to interview Keen and the players, even to pose questions strictly related to football, were denied as Hoffner faced a critical court hearing last week. The denial came even though a school spokesman had earlier the same day said interviews would be allowed providing the subject was football. But Paul Allan, an associate athletic director, explained that "given the sensitivity of the subject," only local media that have "been abiding by the guidelines" were now being allowed to talk to the team.
Keen was equally quiet Saturday at a postgame news conference, shaking his head and declining to answer whether he was keeping track of Hoffner's legal case. "We have no comment on that, thanks," Allan quickly interjected.
These are indeed strange times for Minnesota State.
'He wants his job back'
Keen, who joined the coaching staff only a year ago, is earning $56,265.24 this year -- barely half what Hoffner makes -- and according to the school has no bonus incentives in his contract that increase his salary the better the team plays. The school so far has also sidestepped what will happen if the criminal charges against Hoffner are dropped. Casey Lloyd, the team's longtime radio play-by-play announcer, said he privately talks to Hoffner and said the banished coach has made one thing pretty clear. "He wants his job back," Lloyd said.
Since he was escorted off the practice field by school officials in August -- he was arrested four days later -- Hoffner has kept busy coaching youth football and keeping a low profile at his home outside Mankato. His legal team, hoping to cast the coach and his wife, Melodee, in a sympathetic light, hired a Twin Cities public relations firm that last week had the couple thanking supporters in a widely circulated news release. During a candlelight vigil Tuesday on his front lawn, Hoffner, who would be coaching his fifth season in Mankato now, wore a jacket with the Minnesota State logo. "Why not?" he told a friend.
But the legal soap opera revolving around Hoffner also comes in the wake of the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State, which has changed the landscape of college football. On the day after Hoffner took the stand Wednesday in a Blue Earth County courtroom and said the videos were of a skit made in innocent fun, Penn State's former president was charged with perjury, obstruction and endangering the welfare of children in the case involving one-time Nittany Lions defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky -- the third top Penn State official charged with having tried to cover up the scandal.
Many in Mankato see the comparison as a stretch. "You don't find any of that here," Dr. Stephen Woehrle, a retired Minnesota State accounting professor, said of what happened at Penn State. But Woehrle, speaking of the decision to criminally charge Hoffner, said that "everybody these days is so afraid of liability."
Of Hoffner, he added: "We all do stupid things in our lives."
Inside the school's athletic complex, the weathered football from the team's 1987 playoff game against Portland State sits in a trophy case. So does an aging black-and-white photo of a smiling Bob Otto, the team's legendary coach from the 1950s and '60s, being carried off the field by his players. With the exception now of Keen and Fred Just, who coached just six games in the 1930s, Hoffner has the best winning percentage of any football coach in school history. Lloyd, who started broadcasting the team's games in the 1970s, calls this year's team the school's best since 1993.
But Scott Nelson, an athletic department spokesman, said he did not expect a sellout crowd Saturday at the 7,000-seat stadium. He was right, only 4,041 fans showed up. "It's the deer opener," he said.
As he sat inside the school's student union last week, dissecting the play of the Green Bay Packers with a friend, senior Blake Herricks brushed aside the school's undefeated team. "I actually haven't followed the team a whole lot," he said. "I like watching the NFL."
The Mavericks have not had a player in the NFL since Tywan Mitchell played three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals a decade ago, but almost annually the team has players nibbling at the edges. Two players from last year's team, including tight end LaMark Brown, who was invited to training camp by the Atlanta Falcons, were the latest to have brief stints in the league.
Dylan Jorgenson, a freshman from Blooming Prairie, said he has been to a couple of Mavericks games this year, and he likes what he sees. "They look good," he said. "The coach is gone -- obviously, a morale loss, but the team is good."
How it got here
The journey to 10-0 has not been without its speed bumps. It took two overtimes to beat Southwest Minnesota State three weeks ago, and the team barely outlasted St. Cloud State in its third game, 25-21. A week ago, after building a 21-0 first-quarter lead, the team won a 42-35 track meet at Wayne State (Neb.).
"They've [had] a couple of close calls," said Mike Sullivan, who helps broadcast the team's games. After Hoffner was arrested, and the initial shock subsided, Sullivan said the team's approach has "strictly been business."
Sullivan said it has not been particularly awkward covering the team and its missing coach. "It was never uncomfortable," said Sullivan, "just because of the fact it was never a subject that we could go to because we knew they were not going to talk about it."
On Keen's weekly show last Monday, linebacker Isaac Kolstad was asked why the team was undefeated. "We're a lot more focused this year," Kolstad said. "There's not a lot of other distractions going on."
Keen, speaking on the show, agreed. "We've got something special going on with the guys on our roster," he explained. "They know how to rise up to a challenge."
Four days before Saturday's game, Todd Owens, the owner of the Midtown Tavern in Mankato, ate a plateful of pears, cottage cheese and sunflower seeds and lamented that more people were not supporting the team. "We have this football team in Mankato -- I don't think people utilize it as much. We have an opportunity to go up there and tailgate," he said. "They're doing good."
So was he going to the game Saturday? No, he said, he had other plans.
After the game, Keen and his players were again more comfortable talking football, and not about Hoffner.
"We just stuck to our game plan," quarterback Jon Wolf said, explaining the victory.
Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673