Posted: Tuesday September 28, 2010 3:19PM ; Updated: Monday March 26, 2012 11:06AM
Jon Wertheim
Jon Wertheim>VIEWPOINT

Nebraska's billion-dollar assistant (cont.)

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Too busy to follow football more than casually, he steadily rose through the ranks at Merrill and was a regular on CNBC and other finance shows, discussing fixed income investments. In 2001, though, he left Wall Street to become CEO of what was then Ameritrade, a hybrid tech and financial services company. Under his leadership, it grew immensely, especially after Moglia orchestrated a $2.9 billion acquisition of rival TD Waterhouse. In 2008, the year the global economy fell off a cliff, Ameritrade posted its sixth straight year of record profits. "If we were a football team, it would be like we won two championships," he says. "And it wasn't like we were doing it as USC or Nebraska. It was like we were Wake Forest."

Moglia was a millionaire hundreds of times over. He remarried in 1995 and became a step dad. He played Texas Hold 'Em with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates at the Omaha Country Club. In the spirit of Buffet, the Oracle of Omaha, Moglia lived comfortably but simply in the Midwest.

But part of him wasn't being nourished. When he thought about his unlikely narrative and took inventory of his life, he realized that his happiest professional memories came in the '70s and '80s when he was coaching. "I didn't lose a second of sleep thinking about missed business opportunities, but I couldn't get the football thing out of my mind," he says. "It was like, 'How do I get back to coaching in the fastest way?'"

Shortly after he vacated his CEO post in 2008, Moglia drove an hour down the interstate to Lincoln and met with Tom Osborne, Nebraska's venerable former coach. (Moglia has made what he calls "modest" donations to the athletic department.) Osborne could sympathize with Moglia. When Osborne left coaching in 1997, he was at what he calls, "a deep crossroads." He didn't want to be on the sidelines coaching, but neither did he want to be on the sidelines of life. He ended up spending six years in the U.S. Congress, running unsuccessfully to become Nebraska's governor and returning to Nebraska as athletic director.

Osborne, now 73, was in support of Moglia's request to shadow the program, but left the decision to Pelini. Sure, said Pelini. "I knew Joe was a proven commodity, but after talking with him it was: 'Why not bring him in, and get a different perspective?' He wanted to learn from me? Well, I wanted to learn from him."

Moglia was given a volunteer position and the title of "life skills consultant." Officially, he was tasked with speaking to Nebraska's 500-plus varsity athletes about organization and time management and personal finance. Osborne concedes that he'd figured Moglia might "come around for a few months," grow restless, and then go to something else." Others on staff assumed Moglia would quickly realize the drudgery of, say, breaking down game film and then buy a winery or bankroll a Hollywood film or find one of the other vanity projects gazillionaires tend to undertake.

Not quite.

Moglia had his opening and barged through the hole. He spends Fridays in Omaha tending to duties as Ameritrade chairman and steals a day or two at home with his wife, who runs a stationery company. Otherwise, "Coach Joe" is a fixture in Lincoln. Looking a decade younger than his 60 years, a hail-fellow-well-met who resembles your favorite uncle, he's on the sidelines during Nebraska's games and practices. He shows up at team meetings and film sessions, speaking up when he feels he has something worthwhile to add.

During lunchtime, he's in the team weight room or jogging up the stadium steps. He pores over the Nebraska schemes, the way he once pored over spreadsheets. While he doesn't actively recruit, he meets with prospective players and their families when they visit campus, doing his best Dale Carnegie job. Sometimes the families know they're talking to a captain of industry. Other times, it's just a member of the coaching staff with a firm handshake and winning personality.

When the Huskers filed onto the indoor practice field for the first session of spring ball, Moglia stood on the block, red "N" at midfield, attired in standard issue red-and-white shorts and shirt. With perfect posture, a small crown of sweat on his forehead, he cut an authoritative figure. He chatted easily with the Nebraska coordinators, his distinct New York accent piercing the air. Give the man this much: He sure looks the part of the big-time college head football coach.

There are strict NCAA rules restricting the size and scope of a coaching staff. So Nebraska officials, including Osborne, go to great lengths with semantics, downplaying Moglia's role, stressing that he is an unpaid consultant. Moglia, too, emphasizes that he has no coaching responsibilities and is "more an observer than anything else."

But ask players on both sides of the ball about "Coach Joe" and they're ready with a story. "No one told us he was a big deal in business and then word spread real fast: he was this CEO," says defensive tackle Jared Crick. "Before that, he was just a good guy who knew X's and O's."

Moglia has given some informal investing guidance to Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska's all-everything defensive tackle last season and the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Detroit Lions. He has taken a special interest in the non-stars, kids like Blake Lawrence, a linebacker who suffered concussions last season and was forced to quit the team. Lawrence, though, had graduated in five semesters with a 3.9 GPA. Moglia helped land the kid an internship this summer with a Manhattan marketing firm. "I'm blessed to have met him," says Lawrence, now pursuing a master's degree. "He's been a huge mentor."

Moglia takes pains to express gratitude for the opportunity. "This is such an intimate setting," he says, motioning around the fortress that is the Nebraska football complex. "For Bo to let me truly become part of the program is an incredible act of generosity." That he's been part of the Huskers program during its renaissance -- a wayward program in 2007 is now back in the national title hunt, thanks mostly to an exceptional defense -- has been a bonus. But he hopes it's not for long. The goal is to become a college head coach. Not a coordinator. Not an assistant. Says Pelini: "People would be crazy not to give him an opportunity."

Put Moglia through a mock job interview and you see why he made millions in sales.

• With all due respect, the last season you coached formally, Mike Rozier was the Heisman Trophy winner. Rozier will turn 50 next year. Has the game passed you by?

"This year alone, I'm going to spend 2,500 hours on football! Football isn't putting a man on the moon! I know football. But my skill sets are a head coach's. Do I know how to hire a staff? Yeah!"

• Can you appeal to kids?

"The thing that touches me the most is the impact I have on others and nothing has given me greater satisfaction than helping 18-22 year-old boys become men."

• Can you recruit?

"I'm a proven, trained sales guy and a pretty good closer. Going into the homes, I'm going to be different from the rest of the guys. I'd go in there and say, 'Look, I can't promise you'll start for us. But I'll promise I'll do everything in my power to help you become a man!'"

• You have 30 seconds to sell me. Go.

"Think about a business leader and think about what a head coach does. A coach makes decisions on people and significant decisions under pressures. You need to know the competition, your strengths and weaknesses, you need to unite and excite, to have a mission for your people. Well those are my strengths!" Now he's in evangelist mode. "Here's the bottom line. I'm at a point in my life when I can do anything I want, and I'm picking this. I'm not going to pick something I'm not going to be outstanding at. I know this is something I can do."

Unfortunately for Moglia, the hiring decisions are being made by some of the most risk averse species on the planet. "Athletic directors are sometimes very fearful people because they're judged by the hires they make," says Osborne. "If you hire a guy who's very non traditional who hasn't coached for a number of years and things don't go well, fingers will be pointed at you. Joe needs to find someone who can go to the board of trustees and say, 'This is a non-traditional candidate but this is my guy!'"

Coach Joe knows this. As much as he'd like to coach a national powerhouse, that's not realistic. He holds out hope, though, that a potential employer, maybe at a non-BCS school or a Division 1-AA college, would take a chance on a man who oversaw thousands of employees in his previous leadership position. Maybe he gets the call; maybe it never comes. "But I had to try this," he says. "Had to."

It could be as late as midnight, but most nights Moglia walks off campus and heads back to his hotel room. As he steps out the door of the athletic complex he passes under a quotation, mounted on the wall, issued by another silver-tongued Nebraska resident, William Jennings Bryan. It reads: "Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice."

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