By Jim Rueda
The Todd Hoffner case at Minnesota State University experienced another twist Wednesday afternoon when nearly all of the football players refused to take the field for their scheduled spring practice.
Hoffner, the embattled head coach who was again supposed to be in charge of the team Wednesday after a two-year absence, walked onto the field at the 3:30 p.m. start time for practice, said a brief hello to the media and then waited for the team along a field sideline.
Most of the coaching staff was already on the field when Hoffner and MSU athletic director Kevin Buisman arrived. Aaron Keen, the program's interim head coach for two seasons and now the associated head coach, came over and shook Hoffner's hand and appeared to welcome him back.
A few minutes later, all but three players emerged from the locker room in street clothes and gathered at the entrance to the practice field. Junior safety Samuel Thompson read from a prepared statement saying the team had been silenced through the two-year ordeal and it was time to speak up.
Thompson said the team was unanimous in its wishes that Keen continue as head coach rather than Hoffner. He said the players had become solid members of the community and wanted to express their wishes.
Thompson said the players would have no more comment on the matter. When he finished his statement, he and the team turned around and walked back to the football locker room as a unit.
Buisman followed them and did not comment. Hoffner also walked off the field a short time later without comment.
Keen gave a brief statement as he left the field, saying the arbitrator had made his decision and that Hoffner was again the head coach of the football program. When asked if he was happy coaching at MSU, Keen replied: "Yes, I'm very happy coaching here."
Keen has been popular with the players, and the Mavericks won 24 of 26 games in Hoffner's absence.
Paul Allan, an MSU associate athletic director, later released a statement Wednesday that said Buisman met with the team that afternoon where they "shared their concerns." The players also met with their position coaches for awhile before dispersing for the evening.
Buisman has scheduled another meeting for 7 a.m. Thursday with the members of the football team, head coach Hoffner, associate head coach Keen and other coaching staff.
Scott Schindler, a former MSU player and father of freshman linebacker Shaun Schindler, said his son told him of the players' plans prior to Wednesday's scheduled practice. The elder Schindler said it was important to the players to let people know that their actions originated from their own ranks and that no coaches were involved.
Hoffner returned Wednesday morning to Minnesota State after announcing Tuesday he would come back to MSU. An arbitrator ruled last week that the university did not have sufficient cause to fire him in May 2013.
Hoffner was escorted off the practice field in August 2012 when a criminal investigation began into use of his university-issued cellphone to create child pornography. Criminal charges were later dismissed by a judge who said the videos were of child's play, not pornography.
Hoffner was still fired after the university did its own investigation regarding pornography found on his work computer and whether he allowed others to use the computer. The arbitrator ruled Hoffner did let others use it but the offense was not serious enough to warrant firing.
But he was in professional limbo until January this year when he was hired to be the football coach at Minot State.
On his return to the Minnesota State campus Wednesday morning, Hoffner was upbeat.
"It feels refreshing to be back on campus," he said. "The campus is very vibrant and alive. It's a great feeling to walk these hallways again."
Hoffner said he was going to re-enter the program "one day at a time."
"Like any coach, my job is to treat the student-athletes with respect and provide some consistency ... You try to help these young men become better athletes, better students and better people. I want to absorb as much as I can and try to help make us better."
Hoffner, who had a 34-13 record in four seasons at Minnesota State, said he doesn't have any plans for staff changes, saying there are other Minnesota State officials who will have to approve or deny any moves. There is a spot open on the staff because special teams coordinator Ron Planz left last month to be the head coach at Elmhurst College.
"I will bring forward recommendations of how I want things to go, and then it's up to the administration to see that vision or work with me on a different vision," said Hoffner, who attended most of the Mavericks' games last fall.
"I don't know how this transition will go," he said Wednesday morning. "If we all go into this with the right mindset, we can all move forward and get this behind us and focus on what needs to be done in the future."
As Hoffner walked from the parking lot toward the Minnesota State football offices around noon, he ran into Darius Claire, who will be a senior tight end on the team this fall.
"He gave me a big hug and welcomed me back," said Hoffner, sporting his Minnesota State jacket. "That made me feel good. I don't know if every person will feel that way."
Staff Writer Courrier contributed to this story.