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Dec. 8: Cleared by court, Mankato football coach remains in limbo

A week after a judge dismissed felony child pornography charges against Hoffner stemming from videos he recorded on his work-issued phone of his three young children, Minnesota State University, Mankato has yet to reinstate him.

Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune

Updated: December 8, 2012 - 9:27 AM

MANKATO - Todd Hoffner wants his job back. And a good many football fans at Minnesota State University, Mankato also want their head coach back.

But a week after a judge dismissed felony child pornography charges against Hoffner stemming from videos he recorded on his work-issued mobile phone of his three young children dancing naked after a bath, his employer has yet to reinstate him.

The university will say only that its own investigation continues, but it won't say what it's investigating -- to Hoffner, his attorney or his union representative.

The school's silence, on the eve of the biggest game in the program's history and after Hoffner and his family endured an agonizing three-month criminal investigation, has drawn sharp criticism from Mavericks fans, many of whom question why the school would drag its feet.

"The silence has left a very poor taste in a lot of people's mouths," said Dennis Hood, president of the school's Touchdown Club. "I think the university certainly could save some face if they would reinstate him. And the sooner the better."

As the undefeated and nationally ranked Mavericks prepared this week for Saturday's 2 p.m. Division II national semifinal game at home against Valdosta State, university officials asked the union representing Hoffner to extend his paid administrative leave until Dec. 17, two days after the Division II national championship game in Florence, Ala.

Unless the school rules on reinstatement before then, the delay would ensure that Hoffner won't return to the team this season or be in the stands to watch the players he recruited make a run at a national title. As part of his paid leave, Hoffner cannot set foot on campus or attend games.

"It's just a shame," said Rod Searle, a 1959 graduate of the school, former MnSCU president and a longtime Mavericks fan. "This is Hoffner's team. He put this thing together. He deserves to be there."

Trouble ahead?

When District Judge Krista Jass last week cleared Hoffner of child pornography charges in a strongly worded ruling that said the videos showed children "dancing and acting playful after a bath," many fans expected the school to welcome him back.

But the school's response has been terse. "His status here at the university remains the same," Dan Benson, a school spokesman, said at the time. "From our standpoint, there hasn't been any change."

Since then, the school has remained tight-lipped on the investigation, citing personnel issues.

That response and the extension of Hoffner's paid leave has only fueled speculation about his future.

Some in the Minnesota River town 80 miles southwest of the Twin Cities think administrators are waiting until the semester ends, when classes let out and the campus calms. Hood thinks administrators don't want to mess with team chemistry and momentum during the historic playoff run.

"I hate to say it, but I think it's primarily a delay tactic until the season is over," he said. "I think they are afraid that he is going to disrupt the team and the season."

Still others wonder if Hoffner's use of a university phone for personal videos might violate school policy and bring a reprimand -- or worse.

Bailey Blethen, a retired attorney and longtime Mavericks fan, speculated that it was a phone violation or "something they've given no publicity to at all. But if it's everything we know about, he should have been reinstated a couple of days ago. I can't see how they can justify keeping him away from campus."

Connie Howard, general counsel of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents the faculty at MnSCU universities, said that under the collective bargaining agreement, an employee can be dismissed for just cause, which includes anything from a criminal conviction to a violation of university policy or concerns about job performance.

While Hoffner's recording of the videos on a campus-issued cellphone "was poor judgment on his part," she said, "it certainly doesn't rise to the level of a dischargeable offense. I firmly believe they do not have just cause to terminate him."

While Hoffner has declined to comment on his ordeal, others have been quick to speak out in his defense.

"After going through 100-plus days of a nightmare for the coach, his wife and family, don't you think someone at the university would make a decision and show some class and reinstate this man?" former MSU player Steve Kibble wrote in a letter to the Mankato Free Press.

Hood said he e-mailed school President Richard Davenport this week "hoping that he'd be compassionate to the Hoffner family and bring this nightmare to a conclusion."

As of Friday, he had not heard back. Davenport is in China on business.

"I can understand them not wanting to make a sideshow of this, but at the same time, I think now the time has come to come clean," said Casey Lloyd, an MSU graduate and the team's play-by-play radio announcer.

'Great excitement'

As a December chill swept across campus on a recent afternoon, interim head coach Aaron Keen and several players met with news media to talk about the excitement of a magical season.

"The players are really enjoying the moment, and that makes them a whole lot of fun to be around," Keen said. "There's great excitement in the community. There's great excitement on campus. We are where we want to be."

As they spoke, Hoffner was several miles away at his home in Eagle Lake, preparing to help his children decorate the family Christmas tree. He politely declined to talk, citing the university investigation.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

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