Mankato’s Todd Hoffner endures, inspires, suffers — and wins football games

MANKATO — Minnesota State Mankato is playing its 18thth Playoff home game with Todd Hoffner as coach on Saturday. Opponent in the opening round of the 28-team group will be Wayne State, a Northern Sun rival who defeated the Mavericks two months ago.

“We won the South and Bemidji State won the North and Winona State is hosting there,” Hoffner said. but …

“Division II is trying to reduce the number of teams taking flights. That’s obvious.”

Hoffner returned as coach of the Mavericks in 2014, and this is his sixth appearance in the playoffs since then. They missed 2016, there was no season in 2020, and then there was a real blip in Minnesota State’s football excellence: a 6-5 result in 2021.

“It was one of those years… quite a lot of key injuries and we lost most of the close ones,” he said.

This season started with good wins against Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth, but then came losses to Northern State and Wayne State and a three-point win at home to the usually outmatched Mary.

I’ve covered a number of Mavericks playoff games over the past decade. They expected there would be a second round home game in late November and maybe a quarterfinal here on upper campus in early December.

They expected to hang out with the faithful at Jonny B’s until 10 minutes before kick-off, then trudge down to Blakeslee, America’s coldest stadium, and say to themselves, “How can they play in this cold wind?”

Then came 6-5 in 2021, the shaky start to 2022 and this curiosity from afar: What’s up with Mavs football?

Hoffner said in his office this week, “Our mantra was ‘1-0,’ which means don’t look beyond winning the next game. In 2019 we made it to the national championship game and beat some excellent teams to get there before we lost [48-40] in a shootout with West Florida.

“Then COVID came and when we came back it was talked about, ‘Can we go back to the national championship and win it this time?’ I think a lot of people forgot about 1-0.”

The 2022 Mavericks made the long trip home from the 41-33 loss to Wayne State on Oct. 8. A meeting followed in the team’s briefing room.

“We talked about believing in each other, about trust, about believing in teammates,” said Hoffner. “Opinions were expressed.”

So did everyone have something to say? “I did most of the talking,” Hoffner replied.

The Mavericks went 1-0 the rest of the way five times, including big wins on back-to-back Saturdays in Sioux Falls — first at Augustana, then at the University of Sioux Falls.

So on Saturday it’s back to frozen Blakeslee for another playoff game.

“The ‘Real Feeling’ temperature forecast is plus 9,” said Hoffner. “That would make it our coldest playoff game yet. Did you know Blakeslee turns 60 this year? Sixty.”

I shook my head and said, “With several hundred dollars in improvements in that time. But no worry. every day now [Vikings owner] Zygi Wilf will approve the $10 million check the organization should have written to Mankato’s athletic department in 2018 to host and sacrifice the campus for 52 years of Viking training camps.

That was worth a skeptical smile to Hoffner.

* * *

We talked for a while and then I asked, “How is your family?”

The question required no further details. The Hoffner family, who had been through so much a decade earlier when Todd lost his coaching job at the state of Minnesota for two years based on accusations and moronic assumptions made by administrators and bureaucrats, when two short videos were found on his phone showing his naked little ones Children showed dancing after a bath, survived significantly worse since May 2, 2021.

That was late Sunday afternoon when the youngest child, Mara, 13, who has been described as the bright light of the family, died by suicide.

“We’re doing our best,” said Hoffner. “Mel is an amazing person. Our older kids, Kiaya and Brady, are in college — Kiaya here, Brady at Eau Claire — and doing well.”

Mel is Melodee, the mother of the family, the former school counselor who now works with others in the community on “suicide prevention” among young people.

Mel and Kiaya featured Mara very accommodatingly with reporter Dana Melius for a lengthy article that ran in the Mankato Free Press in early September.

This week, as plans were being made for the Mavericks’ return to the playoffs, Hoffner said:

“My experience is that it hits you at the most unlikely of times. You’re in the middle of something, busy, and then there’s Mara… taking over your mind.”

Hoffner paused. “Forever 13,” he said. “This is our little girl.”

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