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.
“The big thing [is] that Hoffner was treated terribly” in the aftermath of the allegations against him, said Lloyd. “It really surprises me that these young people would do that.”
Mike Reynolds, an MSU athletic booster, also said he was shocked to hear the players are refusing to play for Hoffner. “I’m speechless,” he said, pointing out that he canceled his season tickets after Hoffner was fired. “I stayed away from the games in support of Todd.”
Hopes for a solution
Hoffner, Keen and Buisman didn’t return calls Wednesday.
Hoffner’s wife, Melodee, said it was unlikely her husband would comment before Thursday’s meeting.
“You have to remember that these are young kids and they’re confused. They’re angry, and they don’t understand how my husband has been treated by the university,” she said. “They were told that Aaron Keen would be their head coach for so long, and now that’s not the case.”
The new recruits on the team “have never even met my husband,” she said. “They don’t know him. My husband is consistent and fair and he does hold his players to a very high standard and it doesn’t matter if you’re the best player on the team or you don’t have as much talent. His expectations are high for all the players. He can be tough but his intention is always to make the players better people and better players.”
She said she hopes the players and the coaching staff can work things out. “It always gets worse before it gets better,” she said. “It will be helpful to have them all sit down together and discuss things. … It’s going to get better. It’s going to be OK.”