Arbitrator rules against MSU-Mankato

MINNEAPOLIS -- An arbitrator has found that Minnesota State University, Mankato, had no grounds to fire football coach Todd Hoffner last May and has ordered that the university immediately reinstate him, an attorney for the coach confirmed Thursday.

Hoffner, who was named coach at Minot State in January, is considering whether he will return to Mankato, attorney Jim Fleming said. Hoffner did not immediately return a message left by The Associated Press, but he plans to hold a news conference Tuesday.

"He and his wife are discussing their options," Fleming said. "I have spoken to him ... he is, of course, elated with the ruling."

Hoffner, 47, was arrested in 2012 and charged with two counts of child pornography after university staff found images of his naked children on a work-issued cellphone. His case gained national attention, coming just months after retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of child sex abuse.

But a judge dismissed the charges against Hoffner three months after his arrest, saying the videos on his phone depicted only innocent images of children acting playful after a bath.

Despite the dismissal, Hoffner was suspended for 20 days and then reassigned to an administrative role. He was fired in May for undisclosed reasons.

But in the 72-page decision, arbitrator Gerald Wallin said the university had no grounds to fire Hoffner. The ruling, which is considered private, was posted online by the Bureau of Mediation Services -- and obtained by The Mankato Free Press -- before it was removed from the website. Hoffner's attorneys declined to release a copy Friday.

According to the newspaper, the ruling says the decision to fire Hoffner came from university president Richard Davenport, who wrote in a letter that Hoffner was being fired for viewing pornography on his work computer and for allowing his wife to use the device. University officials had also accused Hoffner of bringing his young children into the men's locker room while staff members were naked or partially undressed.

Wallin said Hoffner denied using his computer to view porn, and several people, including students, had access to the device, so there was no proof to that allegation, the newspaper reported. There was evidence Hoffner's wife had used the computer, but that was not grounds for termination, Wallin determined.

Wallin also found that even if Hoffner's children went into the locker room, no one took issue until his arrest on the unfounded child pornography charges, the Free Press reported.

According to Hoffner attorney 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.

"Essentially, he gets the full benefit of his contract he had at MSU," Fleming said.

Minnesota State, Mankato, released a statement 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."

The university said it would have no further comment at this time.

Minot State spokesman Michael Linnell told the AP that athletic director Rick Hedberg met with Hoffner on Thursday.

"We're proceeding as normal," Hedberg said Friday 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.

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."

Fleming said Hoffner is currently in Minot, but his wife and children are still in the Mankato area, where she works and they attend school. Fleming, who represented Hoffner in the criminal case, said the criminal proceedings were rough, but the subsequent firing took a real toll on the Hoffner family.

"It has been a terrible almost two years, by anyone's standpoint," Flemming said. "He was happy to get his job at Minot. You know, he did not think he would ever coach again."

Hoffner spent four seasons at Minnesota State, Mankato, from 2008 to 2012. He compiled a 34-13 record and coached the Mavericks to three Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference South Division championships -- in 2008, 2009 and 2011. Minot State plays in the NSIC's North Division.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.