Allegation ends coach's career

Todd Hoffner stands condemned for life, a martyr of the post-Sandusky era

Originally Published: May 25, 2013
By Eli Saslow | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's June 10 Taboo issue. Subscribe today!

THE ATHLETIC DIRECTOR walked onto the field unannounced, wearing jeans and sandals, and Todd Hoffner knew in that moment that something was terribly wrong. Nobody interrupted his football practices at Minnesota State Mankato without advance notice and permission. His success as head coach was based on maintaining total control; each practice was scripted to the minute. He believed small disruptions in preparation became big problems during games, so he sometimes asked his players to recite a motto: No mistakes. No distractions. No surprises.

Now, on Aug. 17, 2012, his life was about to become the story of all three.

The athletic director approached Hoffner at midfield and told the coach he wanted to speak with him privately. "What's this about?" Hoffner asked, but the athletic director simply motioned for him to follow. Only a month earlier, Hoffner had earned a new four-year contract with a raise of more than 15 percent, and he had already stated his plans to stay at Mankato for the rest of his career. Hoffner and the AD walked into an adjacent building, where a woman from the university's human resources department was waiting. She handed Hoffner a typed note on university letterhead, and he hurriedly began to read, each phrase blurring into the next. Investigative leave. Effective immediately. No longer permitted on university grounds.

"Is this a joke?" Hoffner asked. "What did I do?" The woman from HR refused to answer. She told him to leave campus immediately. She said he would learn more about the university's reasoning in the next few days.

Hoffner drove back to his house in the nearby town of Eagle Lake, his hands shaking at the steering wheel, and told his wife, Melodee, who was equally at a loss. For the next three days, he barely slept. Mel vomited from stress. Todd watched game film at midnight in the living room, seeking comfort in routine. Together they made a list of potential reasons for Hoffner's banishment. He had worked his assistant coaches 70 or 80 hours a week despite their occasional complaints about long hours. He had cussed, punished players for breaking his rules and, every once in a while, lightly grabbed a player. Did they suddenly decide you drive people too hard? his wife asked.

Some other colleagues saw Division II football as an obscure stopover on the way to bigger jobs, but not Hoffner, a farm boy from Esmond, N.D., who had started his coaching career in nine-man high school football. Now he was entering his fifth season as Mankato's head coach, earning six figures and winning division titles -- by some measures the most successful coach in the school's history. Now strangers at the grocery store stopped to congratulate him and take his picture. Now he had a house in the suburbs where a motivational poster hung in the kitchen: if you believe it, you can achieve it.

He had always wanted only one kind of life, a coach's life, and now, at age 46, he had it. There was his beautiful wife who dressed in Mankato purple, his three young kids and their tradition of Family Fun Nights on Fridays, his one free night during the offseason, when they would go to Chuck E. Cheese's, then come home to watch a movie. He was muscular, competitive and stoic. His friends considered him the model of a football coach: beloved by some assistants, feared by some administrators, but respected by almost everyone on campus.

Now he phoned the university and heard he would receive an overnight letter, which didn't show up for days. So he began to slowly disassemble the life he had built. He wanted to prepare for the worst, in case he was suspended or demoted or even fired. He called coaches at other small colleges, asking about vacant assistant positions. He canceled his golf club membership, convinced he wouldn't be able to afford it without a job.

He was about to suspend his cable on a Tuesday morning when five police cars pulled up to his house. Two officers approached the door. Hoffner greeted them outside.

"What's all this about?" Hoffner asked.

This time he got an answer, and it only confounded him more.

He was under arrest on suspicion of producing and possessing child pornography.


hoffnerPat Christman/Mankato/Free Press

BY THE TIME Blue Earth County Assistant District Attorney Mike Hanson sat down with two police detectives to watch the videos that would determine Todd Hoffner's guilt or innocence, half a dozen people at the university and beyond had already seen the evidence and rendered their own verdicts.

The inquiry began on Aug. 10 because of an everyday inconvenience: Hoffner's university-owned cellphone had broken, and he brought it to the school's IT department. A technician offered a temporary replacement phone and agreed to rescue Hoffner's photos and videos. A few days later, the technician was "very shocked," he later testified, to find videos of Hoffner's naked children on his old phone -- one of them 92 seconds long and the other 10, both recorded earlier in the summer.

During the previous year, the university president had sent an email to all employees telling them to report suspected sexual crimes in the wake of accusations against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. "Subject: Sexual Violence Reporting," the email had read. "Importance: High." So the technician brought Hoffner's videos to a supervisor, who alerted someone in HR, who notified the police. But even the police didn't know whether what they were watching was a crime. The officers found the videos "disturbing," they said, but they also realized these were ambiguous acts by Hoffner's own children. They wanted more guidance on how to proceed, so they called Hanson.

Hanson had worked dozens of child pornography cases in his seven years as a prosecutor for Blue Earth County and had once specialized in sex crimes in Indiana. He had helped convict pedophiles, rapists and serial sex offenders. Of all the important purposes of his job, the one he talked about most was protecting children.

He pushed Play on the first video; it showed a living room with three children standing on an ottoman in the center of the frame. There were two girls, ages 4 and 9, and a boy, 8. They wore towels and faced away from the camera. Around 10 seconds into the video, they dropped their towels and turned to the camera while singing in unison, "Hey, watchya doing naked!" The boy grabbed his penis as he jumped and danced. Hanson thought it looked like masturbation. The girls touched their butts and mooned the camera while they sang and giggled. Their faces sometimes cut out of the frame, but their bodies stayed in view. The children occasionally pushed each other's backs and bottoms. About halfway through the 92 seconds, they put their towels back on, climbed back onto the ottoman and then began the naked routine again.

Hanson had seen all kinds of pornography in his years as a prosecutor. He knew the legal definitions of "lewd" and "masturbation" and "pornographic." He also believed that a good prosecutor had to trust his own eyes.

The second video, filmed only a few seconds later, showed more of the same. The girls sang and danced while naked. Then their brother ran into view wearing nothing but a football helmet. Hoffner could be heard chuckling behind the camera just before the screen went dark.

"If these videos don't cross the line, where is the line?" Hanson wrote in a court memo he later filed with the judge. (Hoffner has since had the videos sealed in court; The Magazine pieced together their content through court filings.)

Hanson told the police that what they were watching looked like a crime, and the police decided to pursue it.

"These videos are not the proverbial baby in the bathtub photographs," he wrote to the judge. "You'll know it when you see it."


IT TOOK FOUR hours in jail before Hoffner was told that the charges against him related to videos of his children on his cellphone. It took a night behind bars and then another day for police to allow him to watch those videos with his lawyer. A police officer sat in the room with them to provide supervision. The lawyer took notes. Hoffner tried to pretend the children on the screen were strangers, hoping it would help him critique the videos more harshly.

[+] Enlargetk
Ackerman + Gruber for ESPNHoffner says he saved Mankato’s coach, Aaron Keen, from coaching purgatory. The two haven’t talked since August.

They watched in silence. The police officer fidgeted in his seat.

"That was it?" Hoffner said when the second video ended. "The only thing I saw was a bunch of happy kids."

He explained to the lawyer that his children had been nearing their bedtime on a weeknight. They had just gotten out of a bubble bath, which the three kids often took together in a big banana-shaped tub upstairs because the Hoffners believed in teaching their children to be comfortable with their bodies. "There's no parenting book that says kids shouldn't be naked together," Hoffner said. He had been downstairs working while his kids took a bath. They suddenly appeared before him with their hair wet and towels wrapped around their waists. They said they had made up a skit and wanted Hoffner to film it. He had no idea what they were going to do; he didn't particularly care. He had a team to coach and a season to prepare for. Football was his obsession, and at times during the season he was home before his children's bedtime only once or twice in a week. He was a loving but distracted father, he said. And his goal in this moment was to appease them -- to speed up the sometimes-interminable bedtime routine, get them to bed and return to the TV -- so he grabbed his BlackBerry and hit Record.

The kids dropped their towels. They sang and danced and shouted. His son played air guitar, and his daughters bobbed their heads to an imaginary beat. Hoffner held his phone to his chest and continued to film.

"Wow, are you guys done yet?" he said about 20 seconds into the first video.

"No," the 4-year-old said.

"Let's start over, guys," the 9-year-old said.

"Guys, do the right thing!" the 4-year-old said.

"Is the show over?" Hoffner asked again. And a few seconds later, just before he stopped recording, he said, "The show is over."

He had never thought about or watched the video again -- until now, sitting in jail with his lawyer. Maybe here, in this space, any video of naked children automatically looked like child porn, Hoffner thought. But to him, it depicted a regular night at the Hoffner house: three goofy kids, comfortable in their own skin, trying hard to delay bedtime.

"Anybody who thinks this is porn or abuse doesn't know my family," Hoffner told his lawyer.


HE HIRED A publicist, who arranged a news conference. Mel agreed to give a speech there. She never watched the videos herself, but she had seen plenty of her children's naked dance routines. "The charges against my husband are ridiculous and baseless," she said during the Aug. 27 news conference. "My family does what every family does -- we take videos and pictures of our kids in all their craziness."

[+] Enlargesupporters
Renee Jones Schneider/Minneapolis Star Tribune/Zuma PressSupporters rallied after Hoffner's arrest.

As a guidance counselor at Mankato West High, Mel knew enough about psychology to analyze her own emotions. "Profound sadness that manifests as anger," she said. She was angry at the university for being "irresponsible," she said; and at the assistant football coaches for never having the courage to support or defend her husband publicly; and at the coaches' wives, once her closest friends, who now wouldn't even answer her calls; and at the community as a whole for believing that her husband could be anything other than a loving parent, a loyal employee, an unsentimental farm boy, a good football coach. "I feel almost unsafe living here, the way so many people get awkward around us and freeze us out," she said.

She started on medication. She read books about criminology and posted on college football message boards in support of her husband, who had never before been arrested or suspended.

She consulted a child psychologist, who said the children would do best in a "normal environment," so Hoffner told them he was only on a "sabbatical" from work. Mel and the kids still went to home football games on Saturdays because that's what they had always done, though the games and the crowd made Mel feel even more isolated, with no one talking to them. Hoffner was barred from campus, so he watched on his computer at home as his former assistant coach won game after game by running Hoffner's plays with Hoffner's players. The university forbade him from contacting players. The team's new head coach, Aaron Keen, whom Hoffner had saved in 2011 from a Division II school shuttering its football program, now preached loyalty and attentiveness. Keen had his players meet each week with a sports psychologist, who encouraged them to focus only on what they could control. Hoffner and his "situation," Keen said, were a "distraction" capable of derailing their season. The players referred to that distraction with a motto -- "Flush it" -- and they sometimes kept a toy toilet on the sideline to remind them to leave the past behind.

"Day by day, that team became mine a little less," Hoffner said.

Meanwhile, day by day, the prosecution's case against him was falling apart. Police seized and searched his laptop, cellphone and a home computer and found nothing -- no other images or videos that could be considered pornographic. A day care provider testified that the Hoffner children "have always exhibited appropriate social development" and "emotional competence." A certified sex therapist viewed the videos and said they consisted of "normal child's play." Blue Earth County Human Services conducted its own investigation and interviewed the Hoffner children, none of whom even remembered being videotaped naked.

"Where on your body do you not want to be touched?" an investigator asked.

"My eye," the now-5-year-old responded.

"And who protects you?"

"My mom and my dad."

On Nov. 30, a judge reviewed the evidence and ruled to dismiss Hoffner's case, concluding that the charges against him should never have been filed. "The videos under consideration here contain nude images of the defendant's minor children dancing and acting playful after a bath," the judge, Krista J. Jass, wrote in her decision. "That is all they contain."

Hanson, who had been asked by Hoffner's family and lawyer to drop the charges numerous times and always refused, said he disagreed with the judge's decision but would not appeal. Then he quickly defended his handling of the case. "No matter what the prosecutor does in a controversial case with a high-profile suspect, they will be criticized," he said before declining further comment about the case.

Hoffner and his lawyer held a news conference to address the judge's decision. He wore a purple tie, the university color, and read a prepared statement about waking from a nightmare. But as he looked around the room, he was thinking more about all the things he might never get back:

His team, which had gone 13–1 without him, earning Keen an award as regional coach of the year.

His reputation, because a Google search for his name brought up images of him in an orange jumpsuit.

His job, because the university said he was still under internal investigation and showed no signs of returning him to coaching.


AFTER THE DISMISSAL, the Hoffner defenders came out in full force. There had been an online petition for Hoffner's reinstatement, a Facebook page and a candlelight vigil at his house. But now donors threatened to rescind their pledges to the university. The president of the Touchdown Club, Dennis Hood, resigned. "This whole thing is nuts," Hood said. "The university made a mess of everything. They overreacted and ruined a man's life. Frankly, I'm embarrassed."

Hoffner said of the university: "They wanted to cast me as the next Jerry Sandusky. You hear my name, you see my picture and you think, Sick f--- . That's what I would think too. There's no coming back from that. I would have been better off if I'd shot somebody."

Hundreds of Hoffner supporters shared their outrage by forwarding a chain email that included another home video, this one shot by a Mississippi couple and submitted to America's Funniest Home Videos in 2008. It showed two naked boys dancing and gyrating behind their older sister -- and it had aired on national TV and won the $10,000 first-place prize.

[+] Enlargetk
Ackerman + Gruber for ESPNHoffner’s kids, experts told the judge, are well-adjusted.

The university remained unmoved, citing the mysterious second investigation into Hoffner's conduct. It was unrelated to the initial charge of child pornography, officials said, but involved two "internal complaints" against Hoffner that the university refused to provide details about. (Despite these complaints, the school still employed Hoffner.)

Shocked by the initial charges, then by the judge's exoneration, the university community did what communities do: It ignored the awkward wreckage. Most players continued to avoid Hoffner because they had wanted to "flush it," and being around him still felt strange. The coaches' wives still left Mel's calls unreturned. The new president of the Touchdown Club said the university should move on and support a new coach. Keen and his assistants began preparations for another season, with a team that now felt wholly theirs. Hoffner was seen as both vaguely guilty and completely innocent, as an object of suspicion and a martyr, as lucky to be free and the unluckiest man in town.

About four months after his case had been dismissed, Hoffner awoke one morning in late spring to yet another day defined by his arrest. He microwaved pancakes for his daughters, then loaded the kids into a Kia minivan -- "the grocery getter," he called it -- and pulled out of the chalk-covered driveway. The neighborhood kids had slowly started coming back to the house to draw and play basketball, although a few parents still seemed "weird," Hoffner said.

Now he pulled up to the elementary school and watched his 5-year-old walk toward the entrance. "Bye, Peanut," he shouted to her. He drove beyond the Mankato water tower, passing by his old practice field and the center of campus. He continued through a neighborhood and parked the minivan in front of a partially abandoned school building, quiet except for the hum of an industrial lawn mower.

"Welcome to my new office," he said.

The university had reassigned Hoffner during its investigation, and now he was making $101,000 for a shadow job as assistant director for facilities development. His workspace was a former storage closet, a windowless box of a room with poor cellphone service. He had no training in facility management and no desire to learn. "I'm a football coach," he said. "That's all."

Hoffner sat in the windowless office and twirled a pen in his hand. He suspected the university would never give him his job back, but he felt trapped in a daily limbo, forced into a new kind of prison. The university refused to comment about its investigation -- to anybody, about anything related to personnel. Hoffner, his lawyers and the public could only guess as to its motives: Maybe administrators liked Keen better as head coach and wanted to "flush it." Maybe they hoped to guard against a lawsuit by finding just cause to validate Hoffner's dismissal. Maybe they were embarrassed that he'd violated policy and taken personal videos with his university-owned cellphone, whether or not those videos were illegal. Maybe they had found something unusual while analyzing years of search history on Hoffner's university-owned computers.

He had considered filing a lawsuit, but his lawyers advised him to wait until the university finished investigating and likely fired him. Then he'd appeal with help from his union and finally have grounds to sue.

He had not applied for other jobs because what other Division II school would take a risk on someone like him? Why not hire one of the 200 qualified applicants who didn't show up in an orange jumpsuit on Google?

So he sat in the windowless office and watched the clock on the wall inch toward 4 p.m., time for practice, the fixture of his schedule for 25 years. It happened to be the first day when coaches allowed players to put on pads and hit each other. The tradition had always been one of Hoffner's favorites -- a day for the natural sorting of victims and aggressors.

He hadn't been to the football field in eight months. He wasn't sure whether he was even allowed there.

"Screw it," he said, standing up from his desk and grabbing his coat. "I'm going."


HE DROVE THE grocery getter to the practice field and parked against a fence, rolling down his window while he kept the engine running. He could sit behind the darkened windows without being noticed and listen to the familiar soundtrack of practice: shouting, cussing and the shrill scream of a whistle set against the heavy bass of rap coming from a speaker.

He sunk down in the driver's seat and watched players he had recruited perform drills he had created with practice equipment he had ordered. There was No. 93, the lineman he had recruited at a high school wrestling practice in Huxley, Iowa, driving roughly 200 miles back home in the dark. There was the star wide receiver who had been dismissed and was now back on the team. There barking orders in the center of the circus was his old assistant coach, Keen, whom Hoffner says he both saved from football oblivion and championed, arguing that Keen receive a salary of $60,000 instead of $50,000.

He watched in silence and timed each drill on the clock in the grocery getter. He broke down passing routes. He analyzed blocking schemes. "Good. Good," he said, talking only to himself. "Get low. Get low."

A former graduate assistant coach, helping Keen for the day, spotted Hoffner in the van, and Hoffner waved him over. The old assistant climbed into the backseat. "How you doing, Coach," he said.

"Not so good," Hoffner said.

They sat for a minute in awkward silence, watching practice unfold out the window. Hoffner had always thought football was a complicated game, one he had devoted his life's work to figuring out, but now the action on the field looked beautiful for its simplicity. Players were doing one-on-one tackling drills; each person tried to run by another without being taken to the ground. It was a game that offered the promise of self-destiny; the deserving player always won. That was the great thing about football, Hoffner thought now. It was fair and transparent. All the action unfolded out in the open for everyone to see.

In the coming weeks, the university would conclude its second investigation and dismiss Hoffner from the payroll without explanation. The union would file a grievance on his behalf. The university would again refuse to comment. Hoffner would consider signing up for unemployment insurance. More supporters would write the university in protest. A divided town would wait for the university to reveal its findings and its motives at an arbitration tentatively scheduled for late this summer, when another verdict would be rendered in the complicated, convoluted case of Todd Hoffner.

"Do I ever get to go back to my life?" Hoffner would ask. "Or have they erased it for good?"

But for a few moments inside his van, Hoffner was still just a football guy, talking to another football guy, watching a spring practice.

"That's what I miss -- the idea that everything is in your control," he said, turning to the graduate assistant coach. "I got accused of something, got exonerated, and I still lost my job, my life and my livelihood. How does that work?"

"I don't know, Coach. What can I do?"

Hoffner turned back toward the windshield. He watched a few more players go through the tackling drill.

"You can't do anything," he said. "But it's nice that you still call me Coach."

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