Hoffner, Minot State football get fresh start

For the first time in more than 17 months, a team knelt on one knee before Todd Hoffner.

The former Minnesota State-Mankato coach stood at the south end of the Minot State Dome at 6 a.m. Thursday.

“You guys don’t know how freakin’ good it feels to be here,” Hoffner told his new team at the start of its offseason workout.

MSU officially introduced Hoffner as the 19th head football coach in school history at a press conference Thursday afternoon. It’s a fresh start for both parties.

The Beavers are coming off a 2-9 season and have won seven games in 32 tries the past three years, posting a .219 win percentage in that span. Former MSU coach Paul Rudolph resigned Jan. 2 after seven years at the helm to become the offensive coordinator at the University of North Dakota, leaving a vacancy for Hoffner to fill.

“There’s always a few names that pop up on people’s radar screen and one of them was Todd Hoffner,” MSU Athletic Director Rick Hedberg said. “We’re fortunate Todd chose to apply for our position.”

Hoffner is relieved someone finally gave him another chance.

Since Aug. 12, 2012, the 47-year-old Hoffner has trudged through a long, painful path to the Magic City.

He was placed on investigative leave that summer day – and arrested three days later – for suspicion of producing and possessing child pornography. The national media smothered him with a dark cloud of contempt throughout that fall. The videos in question revealed his young children playing after a bath. Finally, on Nov. 30, 2012, the charges were dismissed by the judge, Krista J. Jass. But it was too late.

The Mavericks went 13-1 without him and interim coach Aaron Keen received regional coach of the year honors. The administration viewed Hoffner as a forgotten commodity. The 34-13 record he posted from 2008-11 as head coach didn’t seem to matter. His title was revised to assistant director of facilities development before the university fired him on May 6, 2013. Hoffner, through the Bureau of Mediation Services, filed a grievance against the university, though the damage had already been done.

A Google search of his name yields more than a dozen images of his mugshot. He applied for numerous coaching vacancies, including the head coach job at UND, but no one took a chance on him. Too much baggage.

Until Wednesday, when MSU offered him a fresh start, a new beginning.

“I think there’s a lot of people that wanted to see me succeed and wanted to see me land this position,” Hoffner said. “A lot of people texted me today and said, ‘There is a god. There still are good people out there and there still are people that understand that nobody’s perfect and people do make mistakes.’ “

Said Hedberg, with a smile: “He’s a graduate of Valley City State University. That’s the only mistake I know he’s made.”

The support’s been overwhelming for Hoffner. Old friends and acquaintances have come out of the woodwork to congratulate him.

“I can’t tell you how awesome this feels to be up here,” Hoffner said. “I feel that I’ve come full circle as a person.”

Hoffner plans to bring the MSU football program full circle in three to five years, as well. The Beavers shared Dakota Athletic Conference (NAIA) titles in 2007 and 2009, but could use a jolt in the right direction now that MSU is entering its third year as a full NCAA Division II member.

“In three to five years, hopefully we will be to the destination and the place within not only the conference, but hopefully nationally, where we belong,” Hoffner said.

The largest feather in Hoffner’s cap is his success in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. He won the NSIC title and the Mineral Bowl in 2011, along with NSIC South Division championships that season and in 2008 and 2009.

Hoffner’s a North Dakota guy. He grew up in Esmond and played football at Valley City State. He competed against MSU in the late-’80s – even sacked Rudolph once at Herb Parker Stadium. And his 80-something-year-old parents still live 90 miles down the road.

“My parents are so excited about this opportunity for me,” Hoffner said. “They felt bad during the whole lag between my unemployment to my current employment. It means a lot to them that I’m close to home, but they really wanted me to get employed again in the passion and the sport that I love.”

Hedberg lauded the dedication and commitment Hoffner’s already shown. Waking up when it’s pitch black outside just to join an offseason workout illustrates the new Beaver coach’s passion, Hedberg said.

Hoffner vows he’ll bleed red and green. He’ll “be as loyal as you can get.” Most importantly, he’ll be back coaching football.

For a short while Thursday morning, he draped a coach’s whistle around his neck. It felt right. For 536 days, he felt bare without it. But with a whistle and an NSIC team kneeling before him, he feels whole once again.

“To (my children) Kiaya, Brady and Mara: Daddy’s sabbatical is over,” he said. “I’ve been away from the game for far too long.”

Ryan Holmgren covers Minot State athletics and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.