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Foss: Respect for a coach can be a powerful thing

GRAND FORKS — I ran into Todd Hoffner about a year ago at a blackjack table.

I didn’t know who he was at first. But I soon learned he was the Minnesota State-Mankato football coach who lost his job after he was accused of having child pornography on his school-issued cellphone.

This week, Hoffner, a native of Esmond, got his job back after two years of turmoil. A judge had ruled earlier that Hoffner was wrongly accused, that the images were simply that of his children frolicking after a bath.

Still, Hoffner did not get his job back and was later dismissed by the school, with the stated reason that someone had viewed pornography on his school-issued computer.

He eventually was offered and accepted the job as head football coach at Minot State, where would have begun his first season this fall.

But an arbitrator recently ruled that Hoffner was wrongly dismissed, and should have his job back at Mankato.

The school returned his job to him this week with a public apology.

It appeared the sordid scene at Mankato was coming to a close.

But no.

The Mankato players boycotted practice on Wednesday, saying they felt left out of the loop by the school. They perhaps felt more loyal to Aaron Keen, who had been named the interim coach after all this blew up in 2012. That left Hoffner with a job, but no team.

A meeting between school officials, the players and coaches on Thursday brought all sides together. Players pledged to return to the field. Hoffner can now go about the job of rebuilding his life, his reputation, and his football team at Mankato.

The unexpected boycott by Mankato players and a question of their loyalty to Hoffner was in stark contrast to what I saw earlier in the week.

I attended the funeral of Grand Forks coaching legend Serge Gambucci, who was a perfect 10-for-10 in winning state high school hockey championships before stepping down as coach in 1970.

The church was packed. Many of his former players and coaching peers were on hand.

And that’s where I saw how loyalty works between coach and athlete when I visited with a former Grand Forks Central and University of North Dakota player who had Sergio as his high school coach.

This man had four tickets for the Frozen Four in Philadelphia, intending to go there to support UND’s drive for a national championship.

But when his old coach suffered a stroke and the situation looked dire for the 91-year-old Gambucci, his former player didn’t hesitate.

He canceled his trip to Philadelphia, gave away his tickets, and stayed in Grand Forks to say goodbye and thanks one last time to his coach.

The respect everyone had for Gambucci as a coach and man is what can be so great about athletics, and the bonds like this example that form from them.

On the flip side, you have the turmoil and ugliness in Mankato that disrupted the lives of all involved. Who knows how that will all end?

I don’t know if Todd Hoffner made any money playing blackjack in Grand Forks a year ago. I felt it was an awkward situation for me, and I didn’t stay long.

But Hoffner was given a winning hand now of having his life and job back, and down deep, I feel good about that.

Foss reported on sports for the Grand Forks Herald for 36 years until his retirement.