April 18: Mankato football players end protest, will practice

The football team softened its stance, feeling heard after returning coach Todd Hoffner allayed fears.

– Sam Thompson said he and the rest of the Minnesota State Mankato football team simply wanted their voices to be heard Wednesday, when they refused to practice under head coach Todd Hoffner. After meeting Thursday with Hoffner — and hearing the coach pledge to adapt to a “shift in the culture” of the program — the team will return to practice Friday.

Hoffner, former interim coach Aaron Keen and athletic director Kevin Buisman met with the team Thursday morning to discuss the players’ concerns about Hoffner’s reinstatement. The players refused to practice on what was to have been the first workout since Hoffner returned last week. Thompson said they “received the answers we were looking for” at the meeting and welcomed Hoffner back as coach.

Meanwhile, the Star Tribune on Thursday obtained a copy of the arbitrator’s report that last week ordered Hoffner to be reinstated. The report was highly critical of the university’s role, accusing the school of plotting to force Hoffner to leave. As part of the ruling, the arbitrator ordered that Hoffner be given a four-year contract that runs through June 2018.

Thursday’s events were one more twist in a two-year saga that put a national spotlight on both the school and Hoffner, who was criminally charged for having videos of his naked children on his school-issued cellphone but later exonerated.

Thompson read a statement Wednesday saying the team wanted Keen as head coach, but he said Thursday that it was a “misconception” to interpret that as a rejection of Hoffner. Hoffner has not coached the Mavericks since 2012, following his arrest. Hoffner was later fired, though a judge declared the cellphone images of his children to be innocent play and dismissed charges related to the incident.

The arbitrator ordered last week that Hoffner be reinstated. Thompson said the team understood it was obligated to accept Hoffner’s return, but it wanted to voice support for Keen and his player-friendly style. Keen, who coached the team to a 24-2 record in Hoffner’s absence, will remain with the Mavericks as associate head coach.

“Waking up Tuesday and hearing you’re going to have a new head coach the next day is alarming. It’s difficult,” said Thompson, a junior defensive back from Clive, Iowa. “There just weren’t too many communications channels at that point from all parties. We thought it was a little unfair that we didn’t have a voice. We weren’t being heard.

“We love playing for [Keen]. We’ve won many games with him, and we don’t want that to change. And that was one fear people had, was that there was going to be change. At the meeting this morning, Coach Hoffner put that to rest. He wants to change. He wants to adapt to us. He wants to come in and continue that success.”

‘A train wreck’

Casey Lloyd, longtime play-by-play announcer for the team, said he knows many of the players and cannot understand what they hoped to achieve with their refusal to practice. He noted that not all players were among the group that walked to the practice field in street clothes Wednesday and stood with Thompson as he read the statement.

“It was probably an impetuous thing on their part,” Lloyd said. “They’re not stupid, but that was not a very smart thing to do.

“Let’s face it. This whole thing has been a train wreck.”

Several legal experts agreed with that analysis. John Wendt, an associate professor for sports law at the University of St. Thomas, said the school, Hoffner, the players and Keen are likely to endure an uncomfortable period. “This is a lose-lose, lose-lose,” he said. “It is lose times four.”

Laura Cooper, a University of Minnesota law professor specializing in labor law and arbitration, said Minnesota State still had options to try to end a messy situation — including offering to buy out Hoffner.

“Just like any other coach, they can buy out the rest of his contract, but only if he agrees,” she said. “What they can’t do is fire him because the players don’t want to play for him.”

Cooper also was critical of Minnesota State’s handling of the latest chapter of the saga. “It sounds to me like the school didn’t do such a good job of preparing the students for the return of Hoffner,” she said.

Hoffner’s best strategy, Wendt said, will be to win football games — and win often. “The sporting public has a very short memory,” he said. “He’s got so much pressure on his shoulders now. It’s an uphill battle all the way.”

Fallout hits Minot State

Before the arbitrator’s decision was released, Hoffner had accepted a new job as head coach at Minot State. His abrupt departure this week left the North Dakota school starting another coaching search — less than three months after hiring Hoffner. “We were frustrated with what happened, when it happened,” said Michael Linnell, the school’s sports information director. But “we’ve kind of turned the page.”

Linnell said Hoffner tendered his resignation by e-mail Tuesday, just before he announced he intended to return to Minnesota State.

When Hoffner was interviewed at Minot State, Linnell said, Hoffner was asked whether he might be interested in going back to Mankato should the opportunity arise. “He was asked at least once, if not multiple times, about going back there. He said he was committed to us 100 percent,” Linnell said.

Hoffner promises to adapt

Hoffner said Thursday he did not take the players’ actions or statements personally. He admired their support for and loyalty to Keen, he said, and accepted their call for him to change his style.

In four seasons as coach, Hoffner led the Mavericks to a 34-13 record and the 2011 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference championship. Thompson called Hoffner a great coach but said there were “differences” between Hoffner and the players in his first years with the program. Hoffner was not as much of a “players’ coach” as Keen, Thompson said, and the team hopes he will move toward more open communication and collaboration.

“It’s clear there has been a shift in the culture,” Hoffner said. “You have to be able to adapt to the given situation. … With a healthy dialogue and exchange, I think we’re ready to move forward.”

Lloyd said he does not expect the melodrama surrounding the football team to keep fans or boosters away. “Most of these guys that withheld contributions or didn’t buy season tickets, everyone I’ve talked to, they want to come back,” he said. “They were Hoffner supporters, and they remain Hoffner supporters.”

Hoffner said he will not be easily deterred.

“The man above can only put us in situations we can handle,” Hoffner said. “And obviously, I can handle a lot of very difficult situations. So I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a problem moving forward, and I relish the opportunity to work with these young men.”

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