Avoiding Football’s Poison Pen

Tie a Yellow Bracelet

AP Photo/Nati Harnik Joe Moglia

The Billion-Dollar Coach

Former Fortune 500 CEO Joe Moglia has never led a major football program — so why is Coastal Carolina finally giving him a chance?

Out beyond the water parks and seafood buffets of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, off a four-lane highway studded with gentlemen’s clubs and discount fireworks outlets and beauty school billboards, a multimillionaire sat in a Hampton Inn and waited for his pizza to arrive. The multimillionaire did not want to go to bed without eating something, but the pizza did not show, and the multimillionaire grew agitated and rang the front desk and ordered the clerk to turn away the delivery man if and when he arrived. Then he purchased two bags of potato chips from a hallway vending machine, ate his dinner, and fell asleep.

Last fall, on a college campus in Conway, South Carolina, a university president made the decision to fire the only football coach his school had ever known. Until 1993, the school had been an offshoot of the University of South Carolina, but now it had its own identity and its own team colors and its own nearly decade-old Football Championship Subdivision program, not to mention a rapidly expanding campus of more than 9,000 students. The university president, having generated his own ideas about what makes a successful coach, and having read media reports about a retired chief executive officer turned United Football League coach named Joe Moglia, and having heard that Moglia recently moved into his community — a prosperous subdivision of Pawleys Island known as Prince George — sent Moglia an e-mail.

“Hello from a Neighbor in Prince George,” the university president wrote in the subject line.

Two weeks later, the university president and the multimillionaire met for breakfast at a restaurant called the Eggs Up Grill. Afterward, the university president seemed convinced he had found his man. Three weeks later, the school held a press conference at which it announced the firing of David Bennett, who had gone 63-39 in nine seasons at Coastal Carolina University.1 Eleven days after that, Joe Moglia, ex-CEO of TD Ameritrade, who has a career college and pro record of one win and four losses, was introduced as the second football coach in school history.

Stripped of context, Moglia’s hiring seems unorthodox at best, and an outrageous display of cronyism at worst. In this moment, in the midst of a national argument about the role of money in society and the fitness of a CEO to translate his skills into other fields — not to mention the cloud of ethical lapses in both industries Moglia is associated with — here is a story that sweeps everything into a single narrative. It is only natural to raise questions about how this happened, which is why I showed up on campus in early August, and which is why there are people with ties to Coastal Carolina University (and those with ties to David Bennett especially) who have translated Coastal Carolina president David DeCenzo’s unorthodox change of direction into something dark and suspicious. These people have made the presumption that Moglia was hired in order to pay for a new baseball field or a new Astroturf practice field on campus, that he was hired because he is rich and not because of the way he got rich.

The men involved, of course, find this implication ridiculous and insulting. (“At what point do you stop playing all the negative press?” DeCenzo asked.) But the coach, being who he is, realizes that it is his duty to alter public opinion in his favor; he was hired for his experience as a CEO, and one of the jobs of a CEO is to shape the perceptions of both himself and the organization he represents. “Leverage your core competencies,” Moglia says over and over again, and one of his core competencies is the ability to command a discussion, which is why he directed me to go get lunch before we started talking in his office (which overlooks the football stadium), and then directed me to put my lunch down and eat it later, once he started talking.

He began by querying me about my purpose and objectives, and he asked how he could most efficiently satisfy my goals, and he asked whether I preferred to be called Mike or Michael, and then he sat behind his desk and spoke for nearly two hours, waggling his feet in a pair of Teva sandals and crooking his thick neck and contorting his puggish features. When he really wanted to reinforce his point, he stood; occasionally, when I tried to provoke him, he would punctuate a thought by raising his voice and ratcheting up his New York accent. He seemed to relish the dissent: Last year, he asked his stepson (who runs a 5.9 40-yard dash) to try out for the UFL team he was coaching, the Omaha Nighthawks, both as a practical joke and as a way to gauge his assistants’ willingness to say no.

One of the first things Moglia reminded me of when I turned on my tape recorder was that he has been a football coach for a total of 20 seasons. Those who presume to believe the sinister version of his hiring, he insists, have never heard his tale from the very beginning. Those who presume to cast aspersions have not heard it the way he’s been telling it for years, and once they do, he would like to think they will change their mind. (“Why don’t you give me a shot before you finalize your opinion?” he recently asked a breakfast meeting filled with potential boosters.) Because if there is one thing Joe Moglia has learned in 25 years of jousting with the masters of the universe, it is how to bring people to his side.

“Do you know my story?” he said.

And so let us reset, and start the Joe Moglia narrative all over again, as Moglia himself might tell it, as Forbes staff writer Monte Burke traces it in his upcoming book 4th & Goal: One Man’s Quest to Recapture His Dream. Let us hearken back to the Inwood section of Manhattan in the 1950s, to a family of seven living in a two-bedroom apartment, to a gruff Italian father who owned a fruit store on 181st Street and a son who fought a stuttering problem and joined up with a local gang as a teenager. Let us follow that teenager to Fordham Prep and to Fordham University, where he becomes both a father and a football coach at age 19; let us track him to his first head-coaching job, at a private school in Delaware, where he develops a thick playbook full of precepts and proscriptions2 that he still uses today, and to his second job, at a high school in Pennsylvania.

His ambitions take him to Lafayette College, and eventually to Dartmouth. While laboring as an underpaid assistant coach, he divorces his first wife, moves into an unheated storage room on campus, and then, feeling that he cannot support his family on an assistant coach’s salary, quits his job in search of a more lucrative position on Wall Street.

Never mind that the coach has no experience on Wall Street, and never mind that he does not have an Ivy League MBA, and never mind that he is 34 years old: He acquires the alumni books from every college he’s been associated with and calls everyone who has affiliations with both football and Wall Street, and he delivers a one-minute elevator pitch: Hardscrabble kid from the streets; Wall Street and football require the same skill sets; hardnosed approach; perform well under pressure. He is fearless. He lands an interview with Merrill Lynch — “There was a point during the interview when I thought to myself, This guy is a complete lunatic,” the interviewer would later say — and gets himself hired to work in the fixed-income division. He becomes the most successful rookie salesman in the company’s history, rises quickly through the ranks, helps devise a new commission structure that stands to this day, becomes head of global fixed-income sales, gets promoted to head of municipal lending, and leaves to become CEO of online brokerage Ameritrade in 2001.

Through all of this, he thinks of football from time to time — in 1994, the University at Buffalo interviews him for its vacant head-coaching position, and at one point, he says, someone calls to gauge his interest in succeeding Paul Tagliabue as NFL commissioner — but he is committed to seeing through his work at Merrill, and his work at Ameritrade, and he manages to dodge the shortcuts taken by other corporations amid the subprime lending crisis. In 2008, as Wall Street collapses around him, Moglia’s company makes an $800 million profit.3 He retires, and he is restless, as men like him to tend to be, and he begins a quest for a coaching job, and soon realizes that it is going to be more difficult to get hired as a coach after nearly 30 years away than it was to find a job on Wall Street.

“There’s a bug that’s catching, and it’s called football coaching,” says Bill Campbell, a friend of Moglia’s who was head coach at Columbia before becoming chairman of the board at Intuit, the software company that makes TurboTax. “I can’t tell you how much I admire Joe for doing this.”

Moglia’s company, now known as TD Ameritrade after a lucrative merger that he oversaw, is based in Omaha; he develops a casual friendship with Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach turned athletic director, and Osborne and coach Bo Pelini offer him a sort of “internship” with the football program.4 He spends two years floating in and around Nebraska’s football offices, holding seminars on personal finance for the players, sitting in on film sessions, and observing from the coaches’ box during games. He lives in an Embassy Suites and sends out hundreds of résumés, refusing to settle for anything less than a head coaching offer. He accepts a job with the Omaha Nighthawks of the UFL, wins one game over the Sacramento Mountain Lions, fails to make the championship game in a league that dwindles to four teams by the end of the year, and then, finally, after dozens of false starts, he receives that e-mail from his neighbor on Pawleys Island. It is the culmination of a decades-long quest, a classic tale of persistence rewarded, of a man clinging to a dream in the face of tremendous odds. He didn’t have to do this. He didn’t have to be the man living in a hotel off Route 501, eating bagged chips from a vending machine. He could be anywhere, doing anything, and by sheer force of will, he is here to lead. It is an American myth made real, and if all goes according to plan, it is one that Moglia will be recounting in the living rooms of college recruits for years to come.

Having been a college football coach, I still have very close relationships with a large number of coaches and there’s not one I’ve spoken with that agrees with or supports what took place,” says Joel Turner, a Myrtle Beach–based agent who represents several Coastal Carolina players in the NFL — none of whom, he says, have been willing to support the program in the wake of Bennett’s firing. “A lot of the coaches I know consider this to be an insult to the entire coaching profession.”

The second thing Joe Moglia uttered into my tape recorder was that he’s going to think differently, that he’s going to be creative, that he’s not going to be afraid to do things that are entirely outside the box. He has cast his career in this light, as the thirtysomething who wore plaid sport coats on Wall Street in a room full of Patrick Batemans in Brooks Brothers suits; now that he is finally a head coach, he is going to zig where others zag.

At some level, of course, football is football, and when Moglia told me that his football program has “no rules,” he was making an aesthetic distinction. Every coach, unorthodox or not, relies on motivational mantras,5 and Moglia’s is exemplified by the phrase “BAM,” which adorns the walls of his office and the coaches’ rooms and the locker room like a perpetual thought-cloud from the Batman television series. It stands for “Be a Man.”

“How many thousands of pages of rules and regulations are there?” he continues. “The NCAA, Wall Street, period. Most of the time, without a whole lot of rules, most people know the difference between right and wrong. Give me 500 rules, and I’ll spend all my time trying to get around those rules.”

The idea behind BAM is to treat players like adults, so that they will see themselves as adults, as valuable assets in an organization, as “thoroughbred” athletes. The idea is to get them to police themselves, so that when one guy shows up late for a meeting, the entire room stares him down.6 The idea is to let his assistant coaches devise their own ideas and then coach until they don’t have to coach anymore, until the players have such a firm grasp on the system being implemented that they can explain it themselves in meetings. The idea is to focus on the big picture, to hold life-coaching sessions for players that force them to contemplate their own core competencies before they graduate with a degree they might not even want; and the idea is for Moglia to keep his own focus, as a CEO would, only on those decisions that rise up to his desk.

During his time at Nebraska, he familiarized himself with the trends he’d missed — it is still football, he says, and while the game evolves, it does not change — and then he hired coordinators to match the style of play he envisioned. His defensive coordinator, Clayton Carlin, came from Bucknell; his offensive coordinator, David Patenaude, came from Georgetown, where he instilled the sort of up-tempo quick-passing style that Moglia prefers — when I sat in on a quarterback meeting, Patenaude said he wanted his quarterbacks to complete 65 percent of their passes. “The tempo’s going to be dictated by you,” he said. “This is a quarterback-driven system. You’re driving the boat, bro.”

And so the idea is that the responsibility trickles down, from head coach to assistant coach to player. His initial recruiting class consisted of only 11 players, in part because Moglia got a late start and in part because he took his time finding the assistant coaches he wanted; none of the members of that initial class are from South Carolina, and several are from the Northeast, as are many of Moglia’s assistants — for that matter, so is a large percentage of the student body at Coastal Carolina, some of whom wind up there because their parents vacationed in Myrtle Beach when they were children.7 Whether or not Moglia can market his ideas in pockets of Texas and Florida, and in the parts of North and South Carolina and Virginia that other Big South Conference schools might target, remains to be seen. “I can’t promise you your son’s going to start for us, but I can promise you we’ll do everything we can to help your son become a man,” he said, when I asked about his living room pitch. “Here are things we can do that a typical coach can’t necessarily do. Of the 12 schools [in the Big South], this is the only one that’s unique.”

Adrian Sullivan, Shawn Williams

In the two days I spent watching practice, I awaited an outburst from the head coach, but I never heard one. Mostly, Moglia ambled from drill to drill, taking notes on a pad he carried around with him; he said almost nothing out loud until the team gathered around him at the end. (The points he made then were largely about proper hydration and mandatory use of the cold tub and learning players’ names: “If I screw up, you help me,” he said.) He ducked his head into coaches’ meetings mostly to make them aware of his presence, and he reserved the majority of his bullet points for post-practice meetings at which his assistants gathered at a long table in the boardroom adjacent to Moglia’s office.

  • “One of the terms I heard used today that I liked — it hit me like a Rocky movie — was ‘no mercy.’ Maybe it fits, maybe it doesn’t fit. I kind of like it. Doesn’t mean you’ve got to like it.”
  • “Don’t be offended, don’t be offended, but in one of your meetings today, in 30 minutes, do you know the number of times you guys said, ‘OK’? Sixty-two times. Just something to think about. There was a while where I was saying ‘You know’ all the time.”
  • “When you ask questions that merit one-word answers, what that reinforces is memorization. Questions that require an explanation reinforce an understanding.”
  • “When you’re giving guys a break, put them in the shade. If you’re near enough to the trees, take 30 seconds and give ’em the shade.”
  • “I’m not trying to be redundant, but I am being repetitive.”
  • “That’s an observation: I’ve only made one directive in two days.”

I doubt that Paul Bryant ever limited his directives or the number of OKs in a meeting, but this is sure as hell not the rhetoric of Bryant or Devaney or Rockne. It is the rhetoric of a man who views football through a quantitative lens, who spent much of his adult life as an overseer of an intellectual enterprise. And maybe he’s right: Maybe a head coach spends too much time thinking through decisions that would be better off outsourced to those below him. Maybe repetition of language matters as much as physical repetition, and maybe those 30 seconds in the shade make the difference between eight wins and nine wins, and maybe there’s something to be said for placing a bet on a man who spent the past two decades building a fortune in a volatile market rather than screeching at quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.

“We may start a new model of how you go about hiring coaches,” said Coastal Carolina’s athletic director, Hunter Yurachek.8

Or maybe this is utter lunacy.

Last Christmas, five days after hiring Moglia, David DeCenzo forwarded a news story to his new coach: The NCAA had admonished Georgia coach Mark Richt for issuing personal payments to his coaching staff.

“Looks like the NCAA is regulating what a coach can do with his own money,” DeCenzo wrote.

Replied Moglia, according to e-mails acquired in a Freedom of Information Act request by the Carolina Forest Chronicle: “I won’t do anything to embarrass u/Me/Coastal. But that’s unconstitutional. The IRS allowa (sic) ANY INDIVIDUAL IN THIS COUNTRY TO GIVE A SINGLE gift of 13k to anyone else.”

DeCenzo told me he forwarded the article because the issue came up in Moglia’s introductory press conference, the question of whether he might designate some of his $175,000 salary to his assistant coaches. That the media somehow twisted this into a referendum on a man’s wealth is disgusting to him. “Stop attacking somebody because he’s a different mold,” he told me. “Stop attacking a university because to a large extent it’s trying to go in a different direction. I keep saying to people, ‘Give it three years.’ In three years, it’s either going to be the most phenomenal decision I’ve ever made, or I’m going to look back and say, ‘Oh-oh.'”

These e-mails, Moglia agreed, were taken out of context, and then he launched into a discussion about the line between generosity and unscrupulousness, and the ways the two sometimes get confused. He will not pay his assistants out of his own pocket if it violates NCAA rules, he told me, because the risk outweighs the reward (if it were not frowned upon by the NCAA, I got the sense Moglia would do so without much hesitation). He did not delve into questionable investments on Wall Street even when pressured by outside investors who believed his company was not maximizing its value; he did not do so because the risk outweighed the reward. Beyond basic morality, the risk-reward equation, Moglia believes, is what should guide you; the risk-reward equation is what dictates one’s obligation to one’s shareholders, or one’s university, or one’s players, or to whatever model you might imagine. The reason he couldn’t find a job as a college head coach is because not one athletic director or university president — until David DeCenzo — came to realize that in hiring a man with his background, the reward actually outweighed the risk.

“There isn’t anybody like this in the history of college sports,” Moglia said. “Everybody understands risk-reward, but what they say is, ‘Why would we hire a guy that hasn’t coached?’ I would ask, ‘What are you trying to accomplish and what are the skill sets you’re looking for in a head college coach?’ Do your due diligence on me, and I have those skill sets.

“This is not putting a man on the moon. We’re not trying to solve cancer here. It’s football. And I do know football.”

Our conversation bounded back and forth, between Wall Street and college football and all that those subjects imply about the nation as we know it, right now, in the summer of 2012, with all this talk about wealth and privilege looming in the air.9 Soon he was standing, addressing the subprime meltdown and the greed that drove it and the forgotten lessons of the savings-and-loan scandal and the dot-com bubble, shouting at me: “It doesn’t take much to see that if something moves against you at 50-to-1 leverage, you are out of business.”

And so when I asked him if he would pay to build, say, a turf practice field at the university, he said he would not, because the risk would outweigh the reward. “I think it would be looked upon poorly, so the answer is no,” he said.

I followed up with a hypothetical, which Moglia (wisely) declined to answer. I asked what would happen if “Football Coach A” contributed a significant amount of his personal fortune to upgrade the facilities at his university — if Football Coach A did pay to build a new baseball field or agreed to finance a new library or a new science lab or a new economics building or a new football stadium. Should this be allowed? Should restrictions be placed on one’s own wealth in a competitive arena? Let’s say this is Coach A’s own money, and let’s say there is nothing in any rule book or court that would mandate against it, and let’s say it improves his chances of victory, and, in his mind, since he believes in the fundamental mission of his university and of his football program, he feels it would directly affect the lives of real people in a positive manner.

“I have never asked Joe Moglia for a dime of his money for the benefit of the athletic program,” said Yurachek, the athletic director.

But what if he did? And what if the coach obliged?

Would this be an act of generosity? Or would it be unscrupulous?

And in this day and age, how do we tell the difference?

“I think I’ve got one of the most unique stories there is,” Moglia said. “Some of the best decisions I’ve made in my life have been nontraditional hires, and nontraditional recruits. I think I have a competitive advantage at head coach that others don’t have. As a head coach — the head coach is kind of a closer. And guess what?”

He rose from his chair again. Behind him, framed in the window, was a football stadium that could someday expand from 9,400 to 20,000 seats, and a scoreboard that would soon be upgraded, and beyond that lay the sprawl of a college that is only beginning to establish its identity.

I can do that pretty well.