Menominee coach Ken Hofer's singular devotion wins games, hearts
At 73, still has fire to coach
BY MICK McCABE • FREE PRESS SPORTS WRITER • June 20, 2008
MENOMINEE -- This was not intended to be a story about a high school football coach who had decided to retire.
But . . .
But sitting in the living room of their home at the west end of the Upper Peninsula, just across the river from Wisconsin, Ken and Millie Hofer have come to the realization that the end of an illustrious career may be at hand.
After all, Ken Hofer is 73 years old and, with the exception of three years in the 1970s when he worked as an administrator, he has been coaching since 1964. He began at Stephenson, his alma mater, and two years later took the job at Menominee.
Hofer usually sets a deadline of May to decide whether to return to coaching.
"There is a period of time between when football season ends and when school is out, I always give myself that period of time to at least think about it," he said, "because at our age, you don't know how your health is going to be six months later. When I walked away last (season), I had been considering giving it up for several years."
Did he say he walked away? Hofer rolled away.
Hofer was blindsided during a practice before the first playoff game, and his tibia broke off the plateau where the knee joints fit together.
Following the first playoff game, a plate and seven screws were inserted to secure the plateau of the tibia.
That meant Hofer had to spend the playoffs coaching from press boxes, most of which he had to be carried to, and athletic director Dale Van Duinen became his pusher -- chauffeuring Hofer around in a wheelchair.
It's not time yet
In one of the most unforgettable moments in a cherished season, Menominee had just secured its second consecutive state championship -- Hofer's third overall -- and Van Duinen was pushing Hofer down the steep Ford Field ramp and onto the field.
As Hofer hit the field, the public-address announcer proclaimed: "And here comes the coach." The Menominee players turned and began cheering wildly, as did their fans, and Hofer raised his right arm in triumph.
It was a culmination of two terrific seasons as the Maroons, who run the little-used single wing offense, won 28 consecutive games and two state championships.
The victories also earned Hofer the designation as the Free Press' 2008 Prep Person of the Year.
It would have been the perfect way to end his career, except for one little thing: He doesn't want to quit.
"I want to keep doing it, but I don't want to keep doing it for the sake of keep doing it," he said. "I want to have the energy and the drive not to shortchange anybody. That's the only way I'll keep doing it. If I feel my energy level slipping, it's time to say good-bye."
A couple of weeks ago, Hofer decided it is not yet time to say good-bye and he will return for the upcoming season.
Jerry Cvengros knows about Hofer's energy level. They were teammates at Wisconsin in 1954 and '55. At 254 pounds, Cvengros was the biggest guy on the team. At 162, Hofer was the smallest.
Cvengros was a lineman and Hofer, who also ran track, was a running back and defensive back.
"He was hard-nosed, as you can expect," said Cvengros, who later became the hall of fame coach at Escanaba. "At that size, to actually get in the ballgame and play, was something. Ken played just like he coaches -- he was going to succeed. He was going to do it."
Not impressed at first
After graduation, Hofer joined the Army and was stationed in Germany.
"I met a young lady over there," he said, "who has spent the last almost 50 years with me."
That is Millie, 68, a German citizen, who wasn't particularly impressed with the American soldier trying to win her fancy at an Easter dance in 1958.
"I was sitting at a table with many of my friends," she said. "There were two chairs not occupied. Ken and his friend walked into the hall and asked if he could sit at our table. It happened that he sat right across the table from me."
It was love at first sight -- at least for one of them.
"Almost before I spoke to her, the thing I said to myself was 'I'm going to marry that girl someday,' " Hofer said. "Eventually I got to dance with her."
Millie, on the other hand, wasn't so sure.
"He kept winking at me, across the table," she said. "I thought he had a nervous tick."
After his discharge from the Army, Hofer remained in Germany and worked for Wilson Sporting Goods for five years before returning to Stephenson.
Stephenson was a smaller school and Hofer needed an edge to be able to compete against bigger schools such as Escanaba, Menominee, Iron Mountain and Gladstone.
He went to Wabash College to spend time with coach Ken Keuffel, who played for Princeton in the 1940s and had just published the book "Simplified Single Wing Football."
No school like old school
The single wing, which was last used in the NFL in 1947, had been the rage in high schools and colleges decades ago, but had been virtually abandoned by the 1960s.
It is unique because the quarterback is basically a glorified guard. The ball is snapped directly to the tailback or fullback and gives the offense two blockers at the point of attack.
It also relies on deception as running backs carry out fakes for yards down the field.
The offense can confound an opposing defense, which isn't sure how to prepare for it, especially if it hasn't played against the single wing before.
Ethan Shaver, Menominee's all-state running back last season who signed with Michigan Tech, said Menominee youngsters begin using the single wing in the eighth grade, and by the time they reach the varsity, they are well-schooled in its intricacies.
"Our offense is so much different than everybody else's," he said. "It's difficult for anyone to try to stop. It's one of the most fun things."
Cvengros' Escanaba teams did well against the single wing because it was one of the offenses they ran at Wisconsin.
But Cvengros, who is retired, maintains the offense plays only a small role in Hofer's success.
"I've watched Kenny's teams play in recent history and I've said it isn't the single wing that beats you, it's the discipline and the intelligence, plus they block and they tackle," Cvengros said.
"They don't go offside. They don't commit foolish penalties. They don't have turnovers, so they win football games. You can say it's the single wing, but I say it's just damn good coaching. And they play great defense."
Following an 8-1 season in 1971, Hofer became principal of the middle school and was forced to leave coaching because the district did not allow administrators to coach.
After seasons of 1-5, 3-6 and 4-5, the district changed the rule and Hofer returned to the sidelines.
Eventually, Hofer became the high school's athletic director, assistant principal and finally the principal, a position he held for nine years before retiring from that job in 1996.
'It's not any fun'
Hofer ranks ninth in victories (281-122-2) in state history, but until the playoffs were expanded from four classes to eight, his fame was limited to the Upper Peninsula.
For decades, a single loss meant the playoffs were out of reach. In 1980 and '81, the only losses for Menominee, a Class B school, were to Escanaba by identical 13-8 scores. In '81, Escanaba captured the Class A state championship.
Other than the annual game against Marinette (Wis.), which is across the Menominee River, Escanaba was the Maroons' biggest rival. But that changed when Cvengros retired and Kingsford hired a new coach.
The job went to Chris Hofer, Ken and Millie's second child (sister Catherine is a year older). His team is also a member of the Great Northern UP Conference, which means an annual game pits the Hofers against each other.
"It's not any fun," Ken Hofer said. "In the beginning it was very competitive, and that's the way it should have been. As the years wore on, it became a heck of a football game, but when the game was over, it was tough on one or the other and whoever lost suffered. And the one who got caught in the middle suffered the most."
That, of course, is Millie, who had a difficult time remaining neutral.
"In most cases, she rooted for her son because that's blood," Hofer said. "I understood that."
Millie was able to rationalize not cheering for Menominee once a year.
"I always thought he was young and he needs to build up," she said, "while my husband is old and needs to build down."
Chris, 45, did a terrific job building the Kingsford program and won the Class B state championship in 1993, three years before his father won his first title.
Like his father, Chris is extremely competitive, which means he wants to beat Menominee just as much as Ken wants to beat Kingsford.
"As the years have gone by, all three of us have been able to put it in perspective more," Chris said. "Granted, the loser is never a happy camper as far as Ken and I are concerned. And Millie, she can't win. She's going to feel bad either way."
Football is important to the people of Menominee, a blue-collar UP town where some people work in the town's paper mills or across the river at the marina in Marinette and build ships. Others commute an hour to work in Green Bay.
A legendary figure
Despite a drop in the high school's enrollment -- Menominee had 1,199 students in 1966 and now has 584 -- interest in the football program has remained strong. There have never been fewer than 38 juniors and seniors on the varsity team, and Hofer expects 42 or 43 this fall. Overall, more than 100 boys are involved in the program.
Hofer has become a legendary figure in town because of his success as a coach and a school principal.
"He knows how to work with people," Van Duinen said. "He's a good people person. He knows the game of football and takes all the things from football and puts them into life experiences for kids. They learn that whatever you learn in football, there's some practical lessons you can take with you and do anything in life -- discipline, respect, preparation, teamwork. He knows if you don't get the chemistry right, nothing else will work.
"He has that authority figure. He doesn't demand the respect, he earns it."
Over the years, Hofer has gone from a coach who is like an older brother to his players to someone who is more of a father figure.
At 73, is he a grandfather figure?
"I don't look in the mirror," he said, laughing. "I feel as young as they are. I feel enthusiastic."
That is why this didn't turn into a retirement story.
"Now, I have to ask you a question," Millie said to a visitor. "Maybe it's not a fair question, I don't know, but I ask it anyway: You think Ken should continue to coach?"
No one in his right mind would tell Hofer, who has been so successful and means so much to his community, it is time to ride off into the sunset.
"As long as he can breathe and walk, he should coach," Van Duinen said. "He's one of these people you don't want to lose."
"He's not too old," Shaver said. "Coach Hof can go on for millions of years."
Well, a few more years, anyway.