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

Nebraska's billion-dollar assistant

Story Highlights

Business tycoon Joe Moglia is living his dream volunteering for Nebraska football

Moglia made millions as CEO of Ameritrade but couldn't shake desire to coach

Moglia left CEO job in hopes of landing college head coaching position

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Before he made his millions, Joe Moglia was a defensive coordinator for Dartmouth but never lost his love of football.
Before he made his millions, Joe Moglia was a defensive coordinator for Dartmouth but never lost his love of football.
Scott Bruhn

Even after keeping a room there for months, he is something of a mystery man at the Embassy Suites in downtown Lincoln, Neb. While he seems like a straight-laced guy, he leaves early in the morning and sometimes doesn't return until late at night. He has a car parked in a nearby garage, but usually leaves for the day on foot. He looks professional and carries all kinds of binders and folders, yet he often leaves for work attired in sweatshirts and shorts.

One woman working at the front desk surmised that Joe Moglia was the coach of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, but she was soon set straight. Nebraska is coached by Bo Pelini, a figure revered throughout the state, after he applied the defib paddles to a moribund program. But she was close.

If Pelini is the General, Moglia is a private on kp duty. He breaks down film. He attends practices and coaches meetings, filling legal pads with copious notes. From his hotel room, he studies the Huskers playbook until his eyes are half-mast, staying up so late that it doesn't pay to drive back to his real residence in Omaha, only to get up and return the next morning. Moglia estimates that he devotes 70 hours a week to the "job," a glorified internship that pays him a salary of $0.00. His official title: Executive advisor to the head football coach.

Prominent football programs are, of course, filled with ambitious and diligent volunteers, graduate assistants and other apparatchiks willing to pay their dues and work their way up the coaching ranks. Few of them, though, are 60-year-old grandfathers. Fewer still take a menial job after having spent most of the past decade as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Welcome to the Nebraska version of Celebrity Apprentice. "It's a great story, it's a wild story," says Pelini. "With Joe, it shows how hard some people are willing to go after a goal."

From 2001 to 2008, Moglia served as CEO of what is now TD Ameritrade, the on-line brokerage based in Omaha. When he took the job after a successful run on Wall Street, the company had a market cap of $700 million. By 2008, it was $10 billion. For those years Moglia's annual compensation averaged more than $14 million, including $21 million in 2008. Plus he held more than $100 million in company stock. But then Moglia, a football coach in a former life, did the unthinkable. He stayed on as chairman, but resigned as CEO, to pursue a career in college coaching. "Honestly, to me it's not that strange," he says. "I'm not some business guy who gets his rocks off associating with collegiate sports. I'm a coach who wants to get back to coaching."

*****

When Moglia explains his career change to his friends, family and colleagues, he says they tend to fall squarely into two camps. Some tell him he's nuts. "At this point of your life, you're working seven days a week, living in a hotel? Grow up!" Others give him their blessings. "When you can do anything with your life and you're willing to sacrifice like this, it's passion! Go for it and follow your heart!"

Funny thing is, almost 30 years ago Moglia divided opinions within his social circle along similar lines. In 1983, he was defensive coordinator at Dartmouth, having worked the sidelines for 16 years at various Delaware high schools and small eastern colleges. His wife recently had filed for divorce, seeking custody of their four kids, ages 6-14. Moglia's dilemma: should he stay in football? Or should he exchange his career for a more stable and lucrative line of work?

The poverty didn't bother him. It was nothing new. The son of uneducated immigrants from Europe, Moglia grew up in a Manhattan slum, back when such a concept existed. He and his four younger siblings crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. He drank. He stole. He fought. "Two of my of best friends died in high school, one of a drug overdose," Moglia says. "I never did drugs, so I wouldn't have been with him. The other guy got killed by police robbing a liquor store. That guy, I could have been with."

In a stroke of good luck, Moglia attended Fordham University. But he became a father at 19 and paid his way through school by driving a cab, selling fruit and coaching football. At Dartmouth, after he and his wife split, Moglia couldn't afford a separate apartment, so he moved into an unheated storage room above the football offices. "I've never," he says, "needed a lot to live on."

Still, if he stayed in football it meant pinballing around the country, far from his four kids. After the 1983 season, he'd been offered a job at the University of Miami, working under famed defensive coordinator Tom Olivadotti. If and when Olivadotti switched jobs, would Moglia go with him? Half of Moglia's friends told him to stick with his passion and continue coaching. The other half told him to be realistic and, in essence, get a real job. "It's something just everyone probably struggles with at some point," he says. "How far do you go chasing your dream?"

After much agonizing, Moglia gave up coaching football -- "Hardest decision of my life," he says -- and entered a training program at Merrill Lynch. "It was 24 MBAs and one football coach," he says.

Moglia, though, had two things going for him. After coaching football, he thought nothing of working 14- or 16-hour days. And he wasn't just charming; he was effortlessly charming. Says one former associate still with Merrill: "You know the saying, 'He could sell snow to an Eskimo? Joe could sell him snow and then get him to buy an icicle and some frost. You can't not like him." A few years on the job selling bonds, Moglia was one of the top producers for the firm, worldwide. And, it's safe to say, earning a higher salary than any coach in Division I.

 
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