Uncertainty for football teams after coach ruling

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) A cloud of uncertainty hung over two university football programs Friday as they awaited word on whether Todd Hoffner will reclaim the head coaching job he was fired from at Minnesota State University, Mankato, or keep his new post at Minot State.

An arbitrator ruled this week that Minnesota State had no grounds when it fired Hoffner last May and ordered the school to reinstate him with back pay and interest. Hoffner has a news conference scheduled for Tuesday, but his attorneys declined Friday to shed light on his intentions. Minot State athletic director Rick Hedberg said Hoffner told him he would make a decision on his future ”in the next few days.”

Hoffner was charged with child pornography in 2012 after university staff found images of his naked children on a work-issued cellphone. A judge threw out the charges, saying the videos on his phone depicted only innocent images of children acting playful after a bath. The school suspended Hoffner for 20 days despite the dismissal, then reassigned him to an administrative role before firing him last May for reasons the school would not publicly disclose. Minot State hired him as head coach in January.

The arbitrator rejected nonpublic claims by Minnesota State officials that he was fired for viewing pornography on his work computers and for allowing his wife to use the devices, The Free Press of Mankato reported. The newspaper obtained the 72-page ruling while it was briefly posted on the state Bureau of Mediation Services website in error Thursday. Hoffner’s attorneys declined to release a copy Friday.

According to Hoffner attorney Jim Fleming, the arbitrator ordered Minnesota State to give Hoffner his pay with interest going back to when he was fired, as well as for his 20-day suspension, and to pay the difference in his salary if he declines to be reinstated and works elsewhere for less. His contract at Minot State calls for him to earn $90,000 a year and runs through June 30, 2015. He was making $101,000 at Minnesota State, school officials have said.

Minnesota State issued a brief statement Thursday saying: ”As a general matter we can say that employers are obligated to abide by arbitration awards, whether or not they agree with their terms.” School spokesmen said they had no further information to release Friday.

”We’re proceeding as normal,” Hedberg said of Minot State. ”He’s still our coach at this time.”

Hoffner’s contracts at Minot State, which the school released Friday, don’t say what happens if he wants to leave. But Hedberg said there’s nothing in them that would preclude him from leaving. And he said the university had made no contingency plans for the possibility of losing Hoffner.

”It really just comes down to whether he wants to come back to his job,” said Michael McCann, director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

”Another possibility is that he works out a settlement with Minnesota State where he’s paid some amount of money and he declines the opportunity to coach them again,” McCann added. ”It might be awkward to return. But it’s hard to know what he’s feeling right now. If he does not want to go back and if he feels he would not be well received by the administration, then a financial settlement might make the most sense for everyone involved.”

Minot State has been an NCAA Division II school for only a few years, after making the transition from the NAIA ranks beginning in 2009. The Beavers finished last season 2-9. By comparison, Minnesota State finished 11-1 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division II tournament under Aaron Keen, who’s still listed as interim head coach. The Mavericks were 34-13 in Hoffner’s four seasons there.

At least Hoffner can be certain he’s wanted at Minot State, where Beavers players, boosters and the athletic director all want him to stay.

”We feel very confident that he will stay right here,” booster Maynard Sandberg said. He said he hopes the fact that Hoffner’s parents live about 80 miles away in Esmond will be a factor in his decision.

At a team meeting Friday morning, Hoffner only briefly mentioned the situation, said Tanner Gust, a freshman defensive lineman.

”I like him. He really knows what he’s doing,” Gust said. ”He’s turning our team around definitely for the better. He’s got us a lot more motivated. Everyone wants to be better. He’s got us definitely on the right path.”

Nicholson contributed to this story from Bismarck, N.D.