By Chad Courrier
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — There were end-of-season meetings with the players, and it’s the middle of the recruiting season as every football program tries to schedule visits with prospective high-school athletes. It won’t be long until the underclassmen begin an offseason conditioning program.
In many ways, this was a normal week for Minnesota State football coach Aaron Keen. But this season has been anything but normal, starting with head coach Todd Hoffner being put on administrative leave in August and ending with a trip to the national semifinals, still with the Hoffner’s future in limbo.
“I think Aaron and the staff have been able to keep the focus on football, and the success that they’ve had this season gives me the confidence they can recruit and continue to sell the university, sell the program and sell the opportunity,” Minnesota State director of athletics Kevin Buisman said. “They’ll likely encounter some questions about the future, but they’ve focused on football, not speculation about things they can’t control.”
It’s going to be an interesting offseason. A decision on the status of Hoffner could be announced as early as Monday, though Buisman said he knows of no deadline because the situation is being handled outside of the athletic department.
Hoffner’s child pornography case was dismissed last month, but the university said its investigation is ongoing. Sources said that other university employees have been questioned to see if Hoffner violated terms of his leave by making contact with former co-workers.
Hoffner said in a text message that he has been advised not to comment on his situation.
Given the program’s most successful season, with a 13-1 record, Hoffner’s reinstatement could be welcomed by some, not by others. If Hoffner is not reinstated, that could also create problems within the program, and a national search would need to be undertaken to fill that position.
Buisman said he’s aware of a growing sentiment within the community and football boosters that a decision needs to be made.
“I’ve gotten some emails calling for resolution,” he said. “I’ve been told there’s a buzz in the community. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest to have this resolved as soon as possible.”
Keen might be attractive to other programs as a head coach because of the team’s success, but Buisman said he’s not been contacted by other universities, which would be the standard protocol. It’s also getting late in the process for a program to still be looking for a head coach.
Keen said he’s trying to keep plugging away at his job, making sure the players and future recruits can keep the program on the right track.
“I have a job right now, and I have been in a position (in the past) when I didn’t have a job,” Keen said. “I’m fortunate to be in a successful program so I’m going to keep my nose to the grindstone and do what I have to do, which is continue to build relationships with the players and recruits as we move to the next phase.”
In the past, the university would have already hosted a recruiting weekend, but things were pushed back a bit by the team’s success and longer season. Keen said a group of recruits will be on campus the first weekend in January, when he hopes to get some verbal commitments.
With only 11 seniors on the roster, the upcoming recruiting class won’t be as large as some from the past. Keen said he hasn’t heard of other programs using the unsettled coaching situation as a negative-recruiting tool.
“There haven’t been a whole lot of questions from players or parents,” Keen said. “We’ve been able to sell the reputation of the university and football program and the success we’ve had.”
Buisman said he’s hoping to use this season’s success as a jump-start for a fundraising campaign to ensure the scholarship budget is maintained, and he’d also like to see a push for facilities improvements, such as a new scoreboard, press box and team rooms built behind the bleachers.
“I think we saw some of the challenges of the facilities as we got deeper into the playoffs with the TV and replay,” Buisman said. “We were lucky that winter weather didn’t come earlier and impact game day. We’ll continue to look at what we need to do to sustain success.”