Marty Hoffman and Matthew Johnson were faced with the unusual situation of having to be the Co-Head Coaches of the University of Minnesota-Morris (UMM) Cougars this season but, instead of it creating turmoil, the best friends are proving that two head coaches may actually be better than one.
Introducing Marty Hoffman, Matthew Johnson
Football is truly the ultimate team sport. While there are other sports that require a great deal of teamwork, like hockey and basketball, truly none of them compare to football. This is a sport where 11 individuals of all shapes and sizes, differing athletic abilities, and different mental makeups work together understanding that the success of every play is dependent upon each person doing their distinctive job while also helping to assist the others in theirs.
It truly is a remarkable sport in that respect. There really may be no better sport that teaches teamwork than football, and two coaches are proving that teamwork goes far beyond the action on the field. Due to an unusual circumstance, Marty Hoffman and Matthew Johnson found themselves as the Co-Head Coaches of the University of Minnesota-Morris, using their long-time friendship to build the Cougars into a future powerhouse in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC).
Friends and Teammates
While Marty Hoffman and Matthew Johnson have followed different pathways toward taking the head coaching position together at the University of Minnesota-Morris, the two actually first became acquainted when they were teammates with the Cougars. Matthew Johnson was already at the school when Marty Hoffman arrived, and the two would spend two years together as teammates.
Both had enormous success at the school, despite the fact that the Cougars did not have much success in terms of wins and losses. Johnson was a four-year starter for UMM, serving two years as a team captain. He started 44 games during his time at the school, and was named the UMM “Men’s Honor Athlete Award” winner in 2004.
Hoffman also had a great deal of success at school where he, too, was a four-year starter. He was a two-time First-Team All-UMAC honoree and was named as the conference Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. That year he set a school record for most tackles in a season.
While being teammates was one area that helped to generate a bond between the two, Marty and Matt quickly became friends, a bond that continued when the two graduated. Coach Johnson graduated with the intention of coaching and teaching at the high school level, but when the opportunity arose for him to become an assistant coach for UMM he stayed on, a position he has held for the last 14 years.
Coach Hoffman also decided to remain at the school upon graduating, staying on to become the defensive secondary coach. Working together as coaches made this a golden opportunity for the two to become even better friends.
“Marty is literally one of my best friends in the entire world,” explains Coach Johnson. “We played together for several years, his first year of coaching he was on staff with me and he was even in my wedding.”
A Different Pathway to the Same Place
For the last 14 years, Matthew Johnson has been on the coaching staff at the University of Minnesota-Morris. He has served as the offensive line coach, has been responsible for scouting, has served as the offensive coordinator, and was recently appointed as the assistant athletic director at the school. To the Coach, UMM has simply been the only place where he’s really ever wanted to coach.
“I love this place. I have a real passion for UMM. It was great to me as an undergrad and now having worked here it continues to meet my expectations and to be a great place to live and to work and things of those nature. When I came back I wasn’t married at the time but now that I am, it’s an amazing place to raise children. It’s a small, great community.”
While coaching at his alma mater has been a dream come true, Coach Johnson admits that this was not exactly what he had planned when he graduated from college.
“I wasn’t that guy who got done playing and said he wanted to be a college coach. I had just got my degree in secondary education and so my intent right away was to go and be at the high school level, but when my first position at Morris opened up I thought I can’t pass up an opportunity to potentially coach at this level.”
For Marty Hoffman, he spent a year with the Cougars before moving on to South Dakota State University, where he served as the defensive secondary coach as well as the special-teams coordinator. During his time there, the Jackrabbits won their first conference title in 63 years.
The Coach would move on to take a position at Carleton College, where he worked for three seasons as the special-teams coordinator. In 2008, he helped the Knights to a seven win season, which was the largest win total in 16 years. He would spend three seasons there before moving to Minnesota State University-Moorhead where he served as the schools special-teams and defensive coordinator.
While enjoying his time coaching at other colleges and universities, UMM had always had a special place in the heart of Coach Hoffman, and he longed to return to his alma mater.
“I played four years as a Cougar and I left back in 2005 to go GA, but this place always had a special place in my heart,” Coach Hoffman recalls. “I knew that at some point I wanted to come back and be a coach here. To try to continue to build this program, because I think that this is a program that is really kind of a sleeping giant. We just haven’t been able to establish a routine. I think that the through recruiting and through the University of Minnesota degree that there can be some great things here. Being a former player holds a special place within me and I really wanted to help this place to succeed.”
That dream became a reality in 2013 when he was named the school’s defensive coordinator. During his tenure the Cougars have seen great success, including being ranked in the top 25 in all of Division III football in several defensive categories, including turnovers, third down efficiency, interceptions, red zone defense, and defensive touchdowns.
When One Becomes Two
One week before the players for the University of Minnesota-Morris football team were to report for camp, Head Coach Rob Cushman left the school to become the new head coach at Occidental. This left a huge void, as there really wasn’t time for the University to conduct an adequate search for a new head coach, especially considering that players were going to be reporting in just a few days.
After some discussion, the decision was made that the only real option was for Marty Hoffman and Matthew Johnson to act as co-head coaches. In the minds of many within the football world, this idea seems like an absurd one to say the least but, to the two coaches, it made all the sense in the world.
Explains Coach Hoffman, “They approached Coach Johnson and I, and coach Johnson and I go way back, we played here together, I was in his wedding, we’re obviously very good friends, and have the same kind of shared interest in this place and they approached us to try to see if this would work. We’ve always kind of said that this situation would not work anywhere else except under this exact circumstance. It’s certainly unique but something we’ve had to learn our way through.”
While the friendship made this an ideal situation because of how well the two got along, there were also significant advantages that arose by taking on this role together. It was one of the primary reasons why Coach Hoffman knew this situation had every chance of succeeding.
“We kind of play to each other’s strengths a little bit. Coach Johnson has a strong administrative background so he does a lot of the administrative things, whether it’s setting up buses, setting up meals. He really coordinates the offense and I coordinate the defense. We both try to have a hand in the special-teams. It is certainly different but for our current situation where we’re at, it’s actually worked out pretty well.”
Working to One Another’s Strengths
While very good friends, Marty Hoffman and Matthew Johnson are two unique individuals who come with their own personalities. This was beneficial in terms of running the day-to-day operations of the Cougars football team, but it also afforded the two the opportunity to remain in their coordinator positions while working together to run the team.
Coach Johnson remained is the team’s offensive coordinator while Coach Hoffman continued to lead the defense. This opportunity also allowed them to continue to showcase the unique personality that each had.
“He (Coach Hoffman) is much more of a rah-rah guy than I am. That’s really not my personality. From an administrative standpoint I do a lot of the behind the scenes work because that’s always been my thing. I think our relationship with each other and knowing how each other stands on issues makes this a lot easier.”
While there are differences between the two, where they are quite alike is in their passion for the University of Minnesota-Morris. To them, this is more than just their alma mater, this is their home. They embrace that fully and when they describe the school it is crystal clear how much they love being a Cougar.
“This is a very high academic institution, one of the best in the country,” Coach Hoffman describes. “It ranks seventh in the nation, it’s a University of Minnesota degree, it’s a big degree at a smaller campus, and really gives students a chance to be more involved in campus life, involved in the activities and other things like that. You can get an unbelievably high-caliber liberal arts education that’s affordable and be able to not be i in debt up to your eyeballs for the rest of your life. We’ve got a wide variety of different degrees, typical liberal arts ones, but also ones in sciences, sports management, and that has really taken off for us.”
Coach Johnson could not agree more. “This is a place that offers an outstanding education. We’re the only public Division-III school in the entire state. You’re getting a world-class education at a fraction of the price, plus the chance to pursue other interests, like athletics, and the community is a big part of why this is a great place for your college experience.”
Building for the Future
There is truly no doubt that this presented a great opportunity for two lifelong friends to fulfill a dream of coaching while doing it together, but there are a great many challenges that come with being the head football coach, even when doing it together. One of the biggest has been that 13 starters from last year’s team graduated and there are currently only three seniors on the Cougars active roster. That has meant that a lot of freshmen and sophomores are having to fill roles, and growing pains has been the result.
Last year, UMM finished 6-4, their best record since 2012. However, this year’s team is still looking for their first win, but that has not dissuaded the enthusiasm of either coach, who understand that building this team is going to take some time, but the results, long-term, are going to be something special.
“We have gotten to this year and we have to rely on youth trying to get some of these young guys to play because of how small our senior class is, how small our junior class is,” Marty Hoffman explains. “We have primarily sophomores and freshmen and that reflects on our record right now. We are just trying to keep the direction we had while implementing our own things. We want these guys to grow as young men as well, but at the same time play hard on the field on Saturdays and execute.”
While looking to win games, Coach Hoffman has made it clear to the team that they are looking to build something special long-term, which is going to mean that there will be a great deal of success down the road, however, today the results may not look so good.
“That’s where we try to keep our guys laser focused. We try to stay focused on the process and see what it takes to win. As coaches we have to look big picture. We keep our players narrow focused, but as a coach you got to look at the big picture. So, you look at this team and you think we got some really talented freshman who make a lot of freshman mistakes, but we’ve got a really talented group in our sophomore class and I’ve been very pleased with them. In 2018, 2019, if we have two more good routing classes, we’re going to have a really good team. We’ll have a lot of guys with a lot of experience and we’ll have some good kids coming behind who we can develop as well.”
Matthew Johnson is just one of those kinds of coaches who always looks for the bright spot so he, too, is excited about what the future holds for Cougars football.
“I am more of the glass half-full type of guy. Without question that’s where we’re at. I look at us, especially on the side of the ball that I deal with. We only have one senior and two juniors. We are literally all freshmen and sophomores. Although that makes it tough in terms of taking our lumps, we are actually building this program for the future and that’s really exciting. We’ve had two really strong recruiting classes, numbers wise they’re good, but there are some really talented individuals there, too. We just don’t have very many upperclassman so we need another strong recruiting class to really get this thing going.”
What the Big Picture Truly Is
While wanting to develop a winning football program, Matthew Johnson and Marty Hoffman are more concerned with helping to develop outstanding young men. Winning is nice, but it is not the ultimate goal for these two coaches.
“Through their time at Morris, whether they are engaged in the football aspect or the academic aspect, it is exciting to see the type of young men that they have grown into,” a reflective Coach Johnson explains. “They have come here, not necessarily as boys, but they come here as young people and we shape them into the people that they can be, great citizens, great students, and that’s really my legacy. I love getting wedding invitations in the mail from my former players, which I’ve got a bunch over the years. That they want me to be a part of their life because maybe I’ve had a small impact on the person that they are right now.”
The relationships and the develop of young men is equally as important to Coach Hoffman. “I think seeing guys succeed is what makes coaching worth it. When you put the plan together and you start on Monday and you’re going through the week and you’re really trying to emphasize certain things, but then you see it transpire on Saturday, to see a kid that’s really developed and really took it one step at a time, working their way up each rung of the ladder until you start to see his potential start to rise, see his excitement on Saturday. I just love seeing guys get excited and seeing them celebrate with each other when big plays happen. Obviously, that gets me going as well, but seeing guys develop, seeing guys grow, not just on the field but in the classroom, as young men, as they transition from this life after graduation, hearing back from those guys and seeing where they are. That’s one thing that’s really pretty neat to see guys come back and chat. I just love seeing guys grow.”
The University of Minnesota-Morris football team is an interesting metaphor. This team is young, like these young men are when they first come to the school, but it is developing into a program that should make this one of the toughest in the UMAC a year or two from now. Whether Matthew Johnson and Marty Hoffman will be co-head coaches at that point is unclear, but there are three things that you can be sure of. These two men will still be coaching at UMM, they will remain amazing friends, and they will be helping to develop young men who are prepared to be great husbands, dads, neighbors, and co-workers. It’s not just that two heads are better than one; these two young men are proving that two passionate hearts is really best of all.
By Robert Pannier