MANKATO - The lowest moments in his two-year battle are still painful for Minnesota State Mankato football coach Todd Hoffner.
“We were down to very little money,” Hoffner said, sitting in his dining room with his wife, Melodee. The family, he said, came perilously close to losing their home.
Hoffner tried to answer, at first uncomfortably, the many questions that still surround his legal and emotional roller coaster after officials at Minnesota State Mankato found naked pictures of his children on his school cellphone in August 2012. He was escorted off the practice field, and subsequently removed from his job.
“The goal always was for Todd to get his job back. [We] never wavered,” said Melodee, who still flashed her emotions as she recapped what had happened. “More people said, ‘You need to stay.’ [There were] a few that said, ‘What do you think about starting fresh?’ ”
The coach said that questions about what transpired might linger “only if you leave.’’
“There is no choice,” he said, “but to come back and face anyone and everyone.”
In court and on the field, Hoffner has been vindicated. He has his team back — the Mavericks began practice this week in preparation for their first game against St. Cloud State on Sept. 4 — and the abandonment of last April when his players briefly refused to play for him when he returned appears to be in the past. But an awkwardness remains.
The Hoffner saga went viral nationally in the wake of the sex scandal at Penn State involving a former assistant coach. Child pornography charges were filed against Hoffner, and then dismissed when a judge determined the pictures simply showed children at innocent play. But instead of reinstating him, school officials fired him, a decision reversed only when Hoffner won a sweeping arbitrator’s ruling last spring after he had accepted the coaching job at Minot State.
There have been changes — at least on the surface. In an attempt to alter his image as a “hard-ass” coach, Hoffner said he has made some subtle concessions: He will allow loud music to be piped in during practices, and will let his assistants wear sunglasses. His players also will not have to always wear their helmets at practices.
And swearing, the subject of a nondisciplinary letter of expectations the coach received in early 2012, also has been addressed. “I can tell you that I have not sworn since I’ve been back,” he said. With the new school year, Hoffner also will see his pay rise slightly again, up nearly $5,000 to $105,809.
“I will not be trying to appease everybody,” he added. “In your attempt to appease everybody, you’ll appease nobody.”
The long journey was not without its bright spots, which only now are coming to light. Former Marquette men’s basketball coach Buzz Williams — out of the blue — called Hoffner and last year paid for the Hoffners to go to Disney World. “[I told Hoffner], ‘You can go anywhere you want to go — just tell me,’ ” said Williams, now the coach at Virginia Tech.
Overcome by emotion as he recounted his reaching out to Hoffner, Williams said in a phone interview that he was devastated by what Hoffner had endured and that the image of police coming to “get you at your house, and arrest you — I just don’t get that.” Williams said he also invited Hoffner to Milwaukee last winter to a Marquette game, and had the Mankato coach attend a pregame team meeting.
Williams said he even called Minot State to help Hoffner get hired at the North Dakota school. “[I told Minot State], ‘He was wronged,’ ” said Williams. Hoffner was hired at Minot State and then quit without ever coaching a game — leaving abruptly, and leaving the school less than pleased, when he got word he could coach again in Mankato.
Williams said that when he first called Hoffner, the Mankato coach had to be persuaded to accept the offer. “I’m giving it to you,” Williams said he told Hoffner. “We’re not going to argue about it.”
School officials mum
Hoffner found no such support among school officials, who just months before his problems had lavished him with praise — and a raise — after a 2011 season that ended with a bowl victory. Hoffner and his wife said they still cannot explain why key school officials were so quick to abandon them.