Reusse: Smooth path hastens rebuild of Mankato football

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2014 - 8:14 AM

Two coaches have shown they can win at Mankato. Of course, that’s easier with no NDSUs on the schedule.

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Minnesota State, Mankato football team members had their first practice with returning coach Todd Hoffner on Friday.

The world was a better place when we were allowed to refer to those school buildings and dormitories on a plateau in southern Minnesota as belonging to Mankato State.

In September 1998, the people in charge decided to change the title of this gathering place for earnest rural types and Twin Cities kids seeking to escape parental monitoring to Minnesota State, Mankato.

It became the first college to name itself after a fictional academic institution in a television sitcom. Sadly, the folks running the place didn’t go all the way and change the athletic nickname from the Mavericks to the Screaming Eagles.

The humorous part of the name change was the school’s paranoia over what to do with the Mankato identifier. We started off using a hyphen in the Star Tribune sports department, with Minnesota State-Mankato in the first reference and MSU-Mankato after that.

“No, we’re Minnesota State,” bellowed the university’s mouthpieces. “And if you have to use Mankato, do it with a comma. And we’re never MSU … NEVER!”

The name deal became more complex when Moorhead State also decided to go the Minnesota State route. Best I can tell there’s now no punctuation between the Minnesota States and their locations.

What is certain is that the football program at the old state teachers college in Mankato has been more in the news in the past few days than at any time in its gridiron history.

The drama involving reinstated coach Todd Hoffner, interim coach Aaron Keen, spokes-player Sam Thompson, an arbitrator, a sheepish Mankato administration and a deceived Minot State administration has been well-chronicled.

One part of the narrative that could use adjustment is that it has been through the efforts of the hard-nosed Hoffner, followed by the personable Keen, that Mankato has reached unprecedented football heights since 2008.

The heights have been achieved with four appearances in the NCAA Division II playoffs and with a current 22-game winning streak in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.

Hoffner is definitely resolute, and Keen is clearly a sharp offensive coach, but there’s also this important aspect to the “program building” in Mankato:

The changes that have taken place in Division II in this region and thus the Mavericks football schedule have had as much to do with the big success as the coaches.

Mankato State played football in the Northern Intercollegiate Conference from 1932 through 1968. Then, it played a nonconference schedule for three years before joining the North Central Conference — North Dakota, North Dakota State, Northern Iowa, and those well-muscled programs.

The Mavericks did that for four seasons, 1972 through 1975, and it worked so well that Mankato State dropped varsity football for a year. It came back in 1977, playing schools such as Carleton, Bethel, Luther and Westmar, and then rejoined the NIC.

Mankato got giddy again, and went back to the North Central in 1983, along with St. Cloud State. There was a conference title with an 8-1 record in 1987, and a couple of other trips to the Division II playoffs.

Mostly, there was failure. In 2007, the last year of the North Central, the Mavericks were 3-5 in the conference — with losses to Nebraska Omaha, North Dakota and South Dakota, among others. The Dakotas joined the earlier departees, North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Northern Colorado, in moving to Division I-AA (now FCS), and Omaha found a different D-II league.

Mankato, St. Cloud, Minnesota Duluth and Augustana landed in the Northern Sun, the D-II successor of the NIC. It’s now a 16-team conference with a half-dozen schools that don’t belong in size or resources.

Rather than playing NDSU and the other bullies from the Dakotas, the Mavericks’ potential conference foes are now Augustana joined by Sioux Falls, Mary, Northern State and, yes, Minot State.

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