Mankato football coach gets a 20-day unpaid suspension

Todd Hoffner's status as Minnesota State, Mankato's football coach remains unclear. The unpaid suspension might be over his use of university cellphone.

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Minnesota State head football coach Todd Hoffner

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A Mankato football coach cleared last month of felony child pornography charges for recording cellphone videos of his naked children dancing will be suspended without pay for 20 days, a source said Wednesday.

Todd Hoffner, head coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, was informed of the reprimand Tuesday in a letter from university officials, said Connie Howard, an attorney with the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents the faculty at state universities.

Howard declined to comment on the reason for the suspension. A source with knowledge of the letter, however, said it appeared to be related to the coach's use of a campus-issued cellphone to record the family videos that led to the criminal charges. The source also said that the university has "brought up the idea" of Hoffner being reassigned to another position in the near future.

What that means for Hoffner's chances of returning as head coach was unclear Wednesday.

Howard said Hoffner, who has coached at the school since 2008 and is in the first year of a four-year contract, "has been reinstated" after the university put him on paid leave the past four months pending the outcomes of the criminal and university investigations.

But in a statement late Wednesday night, university officials stopped short of declaring him the head coach, saying only that "he remains on the University's payroll." The statement said one university investigation into a complaint against Hoffner has been completed, but another is "pending." It also said that Aaron Keen, a Hoffner assistant who guided the team to a 13-1 record this fall in Hoffner's absence, "serves as Acting Head Football Coach."

Howard said Wednesday that the union is challenging the suspension, which would take effect Jan. 7 and continue for 20 work days.

She said the basis for a formal grievance, already filed, is that school officials "failed to follow progressive discipline and did not have just cause to issue the suspension."

Hoffner, who was traveling Wednesday to North Dakota to visit his mother, who has been diagnosed with lung cancer, declined to speak on the issue, pending the outcome of the university's investigation.

His attorney, Chris Madel, also declined to comment on the letter.

Though he was cleared weeks ago of criminal charges, Hoffner's status as head coach has been in limbo as the university conducted its own investigation, the focus of which has been unclear.

The written policy on the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities website bans personal use of university-issued cellphones or mobile computing devices. Personal calls are prohibited unless essential, and any employee who uses a phone for a personal call must reimburse the university.

The policy does not specifically address using a mobile phone to record video or take photographs.

David Fortney, a Golden Valley-based human-resources consultant, said Wednesday that cellphone policies vary by employer. If companies permit personal use of work-issued phones, he said, it's important for employees to remember that they do not own the device.

"I'm not sure how many employees who get a phone recognize the company is providing it," Fortney said. "I don't think people think ahead, that the employer could periodically check the phone."

On paid leave

The separate criminal and university investigations of Hoffner began when he turned in a malfunctioning, campus-issued cellphone to the school's IT department in mid-August.

On Aug. 17, university officials escorted him from the practice field, telling him only that he was being put on paid "investigative leave." From the beginning, the coach, his wife, Melodee, and his attorney, Jim Fleming, maintained his innocence, saying the images were merely private family moments that were not sexual, graphic or exploitative.

Late last month, after viewing the videos, Blue Earth County District Judge Krista Jass agreed, dismissing the charges after ruling that the images were not pornographic and amounted to nothing more than innocent child's play.

As word of Hoffner's suspension spread on Wednesday, many expressed surprise.

Some said Hoffner already has suffered enough, having been subjected to criminal charges and a university ban during his team's historic run to the NCAA playoffs. As part of the university's probe, Hoffner was not allowed to set foot on campus or attend his team's games. With Hoffner watching on a computer from his home, the Mavericks won 13 consecutive games before losing in the Division II semifinal game to eventual national champion Valdosta State.

"It's crazy," said Dennis Hood, co-president of the Mavericks' Touchdown Club. "Somebody doesn't like him. It just doesn't make sense. Common sense says 'Yeah, he shouldn't have used his cellphone in that manner.' But it doesn't deserve what he's received -- thrown in jail, $150,000 in legal fees. And this is adding insult to injury. It's just incredible. It's incredible."

"What they are trying to do is cover their fanny," said Rod Searle, a 1959 graduate of the school and longtime Mavericks fan. "I told the representative of the president's office that ... the outcome of this thing [will determine] whether my legacy is going to the university or not.

"I feel very strongly about this. I feel if they are going to reinstate him, they ought to reinstate him and let him get on with his work."

Fortney, the HR consultant, said he was surprised to hear of Hoffner's suspension, given the court decision that the pictures were not criminal.

"Maybe the university is being overly cautious to cover themselves," he said, noting that it was a university employee who first raised the issue. "They might be concerned about a future lawsuit against them."

Madel, Hoffner's attorney, said his client is more interested in getting back to work. "Todd Hoffner has no present intention to sue anyone if the university would just do the right thing and give him his job back with no ifs, ands or buts."

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 katie.humphrey@startribune.com 612-673-4758

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