Minnesota State University, Mankato was wrong to dump football coach Todd Hoffner after a judge dismissed child pornography charges against him stemming from nude video images of his young kids on his cellphone, an arbitrator has ruled.

The decision calls for Hoffner to be reinstated with back pay.

Hoffner, now the head coach at Minot State University in North Dakota, is considering a return to Mankato, his wife, Melodee Hoffner, said Thursday. “That’s in discussion right now,” she said.

The arbitrator’s ruling is the latest twist for the 47-year-old football coach and father of three, whose past 20 months have included an arrest, criminal charges, vindication in court, then a suspension, a firing, a new job in North Dakota and now a sweeping victory of his labor grievance.

Hoffner declined to talk about the ruling and isn’t expected to discuss his future until a news conference set for Tuesday afternoon at his lawyer’s office in Minneapolis.

“As a general matter we can say that employers are obligated to abide by arbitration awards, whether or not they agree with their terms,” MSU spokesman Dan Benson said in a terse statement, declining further comment “at this time.”

The 72-page ruling, which is considered private, was posted online by the Bureau of Mediation Services — and obtained by The Mankato Free Press — before it was removed from the website.

According to the newspaper, the ruling says the decision to fire Hoffner came from university President Richard Davenport, who wrote in a letter that Hoffner was being fired for viewing pornography on his work computer and for allowing his wife to use the device. University officials had also accused Hoffner of bringing his young children into the men's locker room while staff members were naked or partially undressed.

Wallin said Hoffner denied using his computer to view porn, and several people, including students, had access to the device, so there was no proof to that allegation, the newspaper reported. There was evidence Hoffner's wife had used the computer, but that was not grounds for termination, Wallin determined.

Wallin also found that even if Hoffner's children went into the locker room, no one took issue until his arrest on the unfounded child pornography charges, the Free Press reported.

When attorney Chris Madel informed Hoffner of the decision Wednesday night, he said the coach’s reaction “was a beautiful mix of shock and gratitude.”

According to Madel, the ruling says Hoffner should be reinstated because he was suspended and fired without just cause. That includes back pay, with interest, since he was fired in May.

Also, because MSU violated Hoffner’s four-year contract, the school should reinstate that deal, which would run through June 2018. Madel said the ruling calls as well for the school to reimburse the coach over his “improper” 20-day suspension from January 2013.

And because Hoffner’s $90,000 salary at Minot State is less than the $101,190 he earned in Mankato, the Minnesota school should pay the difference if he remains in North Dakota.

“Todd Hoffner is our head football coach, I guess, until someone tells us differently,” said Michael Linnell, the sports information director at Minot State. “We have not had a chance to sit down with any of the folks on his end.”

Call for a housecleaning

Hoffner’s lawyer now hopes Mankato school officials get what Hoffner got: fired.

“I’m hoping that after the powers that be carefully review the decision that they’re going to clean house at Minnesota State University,” Madel said. “Anybody that had any decisionmaking authority with respect to Todd Hoffner’s employment should resign or be fired.”

He said the arbitrator’s ruling even took issue with the office on the far side of campus the coach was relegated to after the initial charges were filed and he was reassigned away from the team.

“These people tried to drum up practically anything they could,” he said, calling the ruling “pretty phenomenal.”

Said Hoffner’s wife: “Given the evidence that was put before him, you would hope that this would be the ruling, but you never know.”

Steve Kibble, a former player, longtime fan and former board member for the MSU booster club, said Thursday that “from Day One, it was just a tragedy that this happened,” adding that it was “sad” the school fought so hard and for so long to keep Hoffner from returning to his job.

“They could have … eliminated a lot of this,” Kibble said.

Hoffner was hired to coach the Mavericks in 2008. He was arrested in the autumn of 2012 after turning in his malfunctioning school cellphone to the IT department, where workers discovered video clips that showed Hoffner’s three children, then ages 5 to 9, performing skits after a bath in the family’s whirlpool tub. Two child pornography charges were filed against him over the cellphone images.

Three months after the arrest, Blue Earth County District Judge Krista Jass dismissed the charges for a “lack of probable cause,” saying the videos merely showed innocent child’s play.

Madel, the attorney, said probable cause is typically easy to establish. “If you look at cops funny going down the road, you have probable cause,” he said.

But the judge, in dismissing the charges, found nothing lewd, sexual or pornographic, simply children “dancing and acting playful after a bath.”

In her 24-page ruling, Jass said “at no time” did Hoffner instruct or direct the children and “all the children’s actions are acutely spontaneous” and they did not perform acts that “could reasonably be construed” as sexual in nature.

‘A year and a half of hell’

Nevertheless, MSU refused to reinstate Hoffner, and he was later suspended for 20 days and reassigned before ultimately being fired.

In Hoffner’s absence, assistant coach Aaron Keen took over on an interim basis and led the Mavericks to a 13-1 record and a berth in the 2012 NCAA Division II national semifinals.

While awaiting the outcome of his lengthy arbitration hearing, Hoffner landed a new job at Minot State three months ago, saying he was “grateful they thought enough of me to give me a second chance.”

He said then: “I’m not going to let them down” because Minot State’s decision “took a lot of guts.”

“It has been quite a challenge for my family,” Hoffner said in an interview Jan. 30. “We’ve been through a lot, and we’re looking forward to this new chapter in our lives. We want to move on.”

Melodee, a guidance counselor at Mankato East High School, said in January she hadn’t seen him happy in nearly two years.

“He’s been through a year and a half of hell that didn’t have to happen,” Dennis Hood, former president of the team’s booster club, said Thursday after learning of the arbitrator’s ruling. “There was something that went wrong, and hopefully, there’ll be an investigation as to why it happened and why [MSU officials] took the path that they took.”

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.


curt.brown@startribune.com 612-673-4767