– Todd Hoffner settled into a chair inside the Minnesota State Mankato student union. The tough, old-school football coach had tears rolling down his cheeks.

He had just given a speech at the school’s annual employee luncheon Monday. Faculty members joined university executives in a ballroom for a feast of chili and Christmas cookies.

The event also served as a mini-pep rally for Hoffner’s team, which plays in the Division II national championship game Saturday against West Florida in McKinney, Texas.

The Mavericks are 14-0, a senior-laden squad seeking the first national title in the program’s 93-year history.

Hoffner thanked supporters at the campus luncheon as his players gathered behind him. The pep band played the fight song. The crowd gave the team a standing ovation.

Six years ago, Hoffner was exiled from the school, persona non grata. Now, a standing ovation. Moments later, as he reflected on his painful journey with a reporter, the emotions hit him.

“I bleed the colors of the institution that I work for and give it my heart and soul and put everything I’ve got into it,” he said. “Prior to my whole situation, I probably put my job, football, first, and realized that that’s not right.”

Hoffner’s situation became a well-chronicled nightmare that nearly ruined his life. He was arrested in 2012 on child pornography charges by a county attorney stemming from videos found on his work cellphone of his three children performing skits after a bath. A judge dismissed the case a few months later, finding nothing inappropriate about his home videos. The school still fired him. Hoffner got his job back in 2014 based on an arbitrator’s ruling.

2013: Hoffner cleared, but MSU Mankato fires him

His reputation continued suffering through what he now describes as a two-year “hiatus” from the program.

“It was an awful time obviously in my life and very painful,” he said this week. “I truly feel that I’m a better person, a better coach, a better father and a better husband because of going through the difficulty. It scarred me for life, there’s no doubt about that.”

Portrayals of his coaching style and personality stung him. He was described as an over-the-top taskmaster. He found those characterizations unfair or even untrue, but he used his time away for self-reflection.

“When you’re down and out, people can say whatever they want about you,” he said. “Have I changed over the years? Yeah, absolutely. I think every coach changes over the years. I pay more attention to our players’ needs now than what I probably did before. More in tune to trying to understand them. I’m still a tough, hard coach, but maybe I’m more understanding, more compassionate. But I still expect a lot. I still have high standards. I’m still very demanding. From a disciplinary standpoint, I will still hold people’s feet to the fire if they mess up.”

His comeback serves as a remarkable tale of redemption. Since returning for Act II, he has guided the Mavericks to two national title games (2014 and 2019) and five NCAA playoff appearances in six seasons. In 10 seasons overall at the school, Hoffner owns a 106-21 record. He has been honored as region Coach of the Year three times since 2014.

This year’s team has been especially dominant. They own the highest-scoring offense in Division II at 48 points per game. They allow the second-fewest points nationally at 12.9.

Hoffner inherited a losing program and gave it life. One of his first recruits was Adam Thielen. The Mavericks won nine games and advanced to the NCAA playoffs in Hoffner’s first season, 2008. His program has been a consistent winner ever since. Now he has a shot to win a national championship.

This second chapter is particularly meaningful because of what Hoffner was forced to endure. He came back hoping to be made “whole again.” He’s happy now, he says.

“You’ve got to love what you do and keep your priorities straight,” he said. “It’s got to be family first.”