‘In a daze yet’
ESMOND – Leo Hoffner is already nervous and the Minot State University football season doesn’t start for about seven months. For his wife, Arlene, it hasn’t sunk in that she will get to see her son coach the Beavers, who play home game just 90 miles away from the couple’s 1,200-acre farm northeast of Esmond.
“I think I’m in a daze yet,” Arlene, 80, said.
Regularly making it to games at Todd Hoffner’s previous head coaching spot – Minnesota State, Mankato – wasn’t exactly an option for the elderly pair. That 480-mile distance felt even further during a bizarre situation that saw Hoffner lose his job as one of NCAA Division II’s premiere coaches.
In August 2012, Hoffner was arrested on suspicion of producing and possessing child pornography. The charges stemmed from part of a video on his school-issued cell phone showed his three children – ages 4, 8 and 9 – dancing naked following a bubble bath. Hoffner maintained that it was an innocent moment of his kids having fun. His wife Melodee was a school guidance counselor at the time and didn’t doubt her husband for a second.
“If (predatory) things like that happened, if he’s guilty of something like that, you think that family would be together?” Leo, 82, said. “She wouldn’t stay with him on charges like that. I mean, a woman that’s that well educated, she could find a job anywhere as a counselor. They stuck together.”
On Nov. 30, 2012, a judge dismissed the case, stating, “The videos under consideration here contain nude images of the defendant’s minor children dancing and acting playful after a bath. That is all they contain.”
Hoffner was reassigned to a facilities management position at the university during the investigation and fired the following May. He is still waiting the results of a grievance filed against the school.
On Jan. 30, Minot State hired him to rejuvenate a program that struggled through its first two years in Division II competition. MSU athletic director Rick Hedberg was the first to make Hoffner an offer.
“I had my moments,” Todd Hoffner said. “It was hard to understand and believe, but I guess you gotta have faith in the justice system and wait for it to run its course, and hope that the people that are involved and putting you in that position … have enough compassion to put you back in a position that they took you out of. And that never happened, so you have to go fend for yourself and make your own mark.”
Growing up in Esmond
Todd Hoffner is the youngest of six children, including four older brothers. The kids grew up helping with farm chores and staying active through athletics. Todd was tasked with feeding the dairy cows. Arlene Hoffner remembers her youngest as a quiet boy obsessed with football.
“You always reflect back and appreciate everything that was done for you that your parents do,” Todd said. “You don’t realize and understand it when you’re going through it. My mom was pretty strict and she used to make us pray and do things like that if we weren’t listening and doing what we were supposed to do.”
Hoffner’s work ethic on the farm transferred to the playing field, where he excelled at football, basketball and track and field.
“He was pretty outstanding in all the sports he participated in,” former Esmond football coach Dwight Leier said. “I do remember his attention to detail and I think that’s kind of carried over into his coaching. He was really meticulous in what he did and he was always striving for improvement.”
Leier was especially pleased with how much Todd matured between his junior and senior seasons.
“We had a core of guys that would lift weights quite often during the week,” Todd said. “Even though a lot of us were farm kids, when it was dark we would train after hours and it was kind of a cool little tradition that was started four or five years ahead of me. Dwight Leier did a phenomenal job of pushing us to be better than we could be.”
Hoffner went on to play for Valley City State and was an assistant coach in the college ranks for nearly decade before landing a head coaching job with Division III Wisconsin-Eau Claire from 1999 to 2005.
Before taking over at Mankato for the 2008 season, he served a stint as offensive coordinator at University of South Dakota. In four seasons with Mankato he led the Mavericks to a 34-13 record.
“He handled (the investigation) a lot better than I would’ve and maybe a lot of people,” Leier said. “He did it the right way and just waited for everything to play itself out because he knew he was innocent of any of those charges and it turned out well for him that way.
“I’m really happy for him and I think Minot State got an excellent guy. If there’s someone who can get their ship righted up there it’s Todd.”
Redemption and embracing family
Through the investigation and the months of limbo that followed at Mankato, Arlene Hoffman was battling two forms of cancer.
“It was tough on him, it was tough on his family,” Leier said. “His parents, they were real devastated too, but they began to realize to that it was something that wasn’t right. The charges were false.”
Todd Hoffner looked to his parents for guidance and they needed his support too.
“I became closer to my family and maybe that was a blessing in disguise and one of the silver linings to this whole situation,” Todd Hoffner said. “I’ve learned the importance of family and being a close-knit family and working together as family. They were there for me. They supported me and reached out to me.”
Arlene is free of the cancer, which was in her abdomen and a lung.
“A lot of times he’d call me and was out walking and he went around a big block every day after he got the kids to school,” Arlene said.
“I’m pretty quiet. If I do my crying, I do it by myself, but that was really a shock.”
The tears have subsided though new tears of joy might hit when the Hoffners travel with a what they anticipate to be a strong Esmond following for Minot State games. Even then, Leo expects the fan side of his wife will trump the other emotions.
“She can holler louder than I can,” Leo said. “When the game’s on TV, we’re both hollering like we’re there.”
Come autumn they will be.
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