After a harrowing two years on the sidelines, Todd Hoffner reclaimed his job Wednesday as head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, only to be blindsided by a player rebellion at his return.
Instead of taking the field in uniform for a spring practice attended by Hoffner, the players gathered and read a statement proclaiming their allegiance to Aaron Keen, the coach who led them to two sterling seasons after Hoffner was dismissed following allegations that he had made pornographic videos of his young children.
“As a collective unit, we’ve all agreed that we will stick together and show our support in having Aaron Keen as the head football coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato,” junior safety Samuel Thompson read from the statement. “We’ve all become outstanding community members, students and athletes, in the last year and a half since the removal of Todd Hoffner. Throughout this process, our voice has been silent. It is time our voice is heard. We want information, we want answers, because this is our team.”
An arbitrator ordered Hoffner restored to the head coaching job last week, ending an ordeal that began when school officials discovered videos of his naked children on his university-issued cellphone. Criminal charges were filed but later dismissed with a judge saying the video had captured only innocent child play.
The university, however, still fired Hoffner and he eventually accepted another coaching job at Minot State University in North Dakota. Wednesday was to be his first day back on the job in Mankato.
Wave of shock around school
Hoffner and university athletic director, Kevin Buisman, were reportedly surprised by the players’ stand, which set off a wave of shock and outrage among some university boosters.
“This whole thing has been fumbled by the administration,” said Steve Woehrle, a retired MSU accounting professor. The administration “botched it” when it fired Hoffner, then botched it again when he returned, he said. The athletic director, coaching staff and the players should have met before Wednesday’s aborted practice to discuss Hoffner’s return, Woehrle said.
Instead, they will gather at 7 a.m. Thursday, a meeting between the players, the coaching staff, including Hoffner and Keen, and Buisman that was scheduled after the players refused to practice.
“I’ve heard Keen is a more personable guy,” Woehrle said. “And since they’ve had such good results with Keen and like him, the team obviously wants to keep him. It’s real immaturity on the team’s part. I know they’re young adults but they’re kids. … He should have never been taken out of the program, he was brought back legally. He’s the coach. That’s just the way it is.”
But the players see it differently.
“As a unit we have decided not to practice, because of the changeup in the coaching situation,” Thompson said in the statement. “We want Aaron Keen as the head coach.”
Two successful seasons
Keen’s two years coaching Minnesota State football were a huge success.
During his first year in 2012, as the Hoffner saga unfolded, Keen led the team as interim coach to a 13-1 record — the best in school history. Its lone loss came to Valdosta State, the eventual Division II national champions. He won several coach of the year honors, including American Football Monthly’s Division II coach of the year.
Keen followed that up last year with an 11-1 record.
Before his world imploded, Hoffner also successfully led the team. He finished 2011 with a 9-3 record, and the team finished with its fourth consecutive winning season. He was named Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference coach of the year in 2009 and had earned a new four-year contract.
Casey Lloyd, the school’s longtime radio play-by-play announcer, said he was surprised by the players’ revolt. “There was certainly a very good attitude” between the players and Keen, said Lloyd. “But I didn’t notice a bad attitude when Hoffner was there — he’s a bit more of a stickler.