Joe Moglia's career switch paying off

CONWAY, S.C. -- After 25 years as a Wall Street titan, Joe Moglia would be a celebrity on Coastal Carolina's campus even if he wasn't also the football coach, so today, he's been tabbed to star in a video for one of school's burgeoning student groups. He knows the drill.

He asks the cameraman, a Coastal student, whether he should look into the camera or at his interviewer. He asks his interviewer, dean of students Travis Overton, if addressing him by name might complicate future edits. Then Moglia asks the question he asks at the start of every interview: What do you need from me?

Overton explains the premise, that the video will be shown an a benefit dinner later in the year designed to raise money from donors, and Moglia's unlikely life story will be the featured attraction.

"Will the money go to scholarships or the endowment?" Moglia asks, stopping Overton in his tracks.

Moglia has run the numbers already. Coastal's enrollment has swelled by nearly 50 percent in the past decade, growth that far outpaces the expected yield on an endowment. Scholarships, however, provide instant dividends. This is what sets Moglia apart in the coaching ranks. He's written two books: One on offensive strategy in football, one on investment strategy for novice traders. He slips between the two worlds effortlessly.

Overton is already convinced, so Moglia turns his attention to once again unraveling his life story with practiced ease and enthusiastic flair. He's told it hundreds of times to thousands of people, and yet it still seems hard to believe. But that's Moglia's job now. He's creating believers.

The final staff meeting of the spring is brief, which is the norm at Coastal Carolina. The conference room is stuffed to the brim with assistants huddled around a small table, interns and graduate assistants haphazardly perched along the outskirts. At the center of the scrum is Moglia.

After more than two years working for the country's most unlikely college coach, Moglia's staff has embraced his obsession with efficiency. Early recruiting pitches include little more than a generic grade of the player's ability. "An 'A' means I don't want to play this guy, a 'C' means I can't wait to play him," Moglia explains. Film study in meetings is capped at four plays per position group. If a decision can't be explained clearly in a single sentence, Moglia is apt to dismiss it entirely.

Moglia touts that his staff likely gets more down time throughout the year than any in the nation. He's done the research, and the rewards of extended workdays diminish rapidly after a certain point. Today's meeting will conclude with a demand that his coaches spend more time relaxing than recruiting during their summer break.

But if the rapid-fire workday and required relaxation is accepted dogma at Coastal Carolina, Moglia's latest innovation remains a point of mild contention. He's outlawed tackling during practice.

"We want to have a culture of being physically and mentally tough," offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude said. "Trying to establish that while not being as physical is something I had to learn."

For a football lifer like Patenaude, the plan undercut the very foundation of his coaching philosophy, but Moglia sees tradition as an inefficiency in the marketplace. Learning is like investing, he believes. Information compounds the same as interest, growing geometrically rather than linearly, but injuries derail the system. This spring, injuries were the enemy, so Coastal's players endured just 65 minutes of tackling -- 15 in the first scrimmage, 20 in the second and half of the spring game.

Now, Moglia is wrapping up the spring by distributing the results of this madness, typed, printed and passed among the room full of once dubious coaches. The team ran 400 more snaps this spring than last. Injuries in the spring game were cut in half. Practices missed due to injury declined by 250 percent.

"Faster not physical," he said. "As long as we're compounding properly, we'll be good."

There is no dissent from the crowd, even if some remain reluctant to buy in. Letting go of tradition is hard. Moglia knows that. It's his competitive advantage.

Among the investment magazines and football trophies that litter Moglia's office is a plaque hanging on a wall that reads, "Think outside the box." He's been a businessman and a coach, but in a more perfect world, Moglia insists, he would've been a chess master.

When Moglia ended his first stint in coaching, he could be barely keep his family afloat on a meager salary. When he returned to college football in 2008, it was for an unpaid job with Nebraska. In the interim, he was one of Wall Street's great success stories, rising through the ranks at Merrill Lynch before becoming CEO at Ameritrade, where he turned the niche investment firm into a market behemoth.

Above his desk at Coastal are two framed pictures. One is of legendary coach Vince Lombardi; the other of Warren Buffett. The latter is personalized and signed, a souvenir from one of Moglia's many visits with the billionaire investor. Some stories touting Moglia's success have suggested he, too, is a billionaire, but he says those rumors make him uncomfortable. Still, conservative estimates put his net worth well beyond what even the most successful college football coaches could hope to earn in a lifetime.

It all makes for a remarkably impressive story, which Moglia recites with practiced ease, the product of numerous interviews and speeches on the subject. When he was young, he rarely spoke thanks to a stutter that made him easy prey in the rough neighborhood off Dyckman Street in Manhattan, where he grew up, but now he's an orator of the highest order. In just the past few weeks, he's delivered two commencement addresses that earned him standing ovations, an obvious source of pride for a man who rarely concerns himself with the opinions of outsiders.

This third act in Moglia's life story almost didn't come to fruition, however. When he resigned as CEO of now TD Ameritrade six years ago to return to his first love, he assumed his track record would be viewed as an asset. Instead, he found himself an outsider in a world he'd inhabited for nearly 20 years as a high school coach and college assistant in the 1970s and early '80s.

Moglia accepted a gig at Nebraska in the nebulous role of special assistant to head coach Bo Pelini. He worked 80-hour weeks, sat in every meeting and was quizzed routinely on football issues during his tenure. He was a natural at the job, Pelini said, but the next step in Moglia's comeback attempt remained painfully out of reach.

"To me, it was a no-brainer," Pelini said. "He understands football, has a tremendous work ethic, intelligence. He's a leader, just a successful guy. But getting an AD to recognize that -- I just wasn't sure if that was ever going to happen."

Moglia was told again and again that, as a former CEO, he'd be an ideal fit to lead a program, but athletics directors weren't interested in the scrutiny that would invariably come with hiring such an unconventional candidate. Even now this rankles Moglia, who scoffs at the shortsightedness with bluntness typical of his blue-collar Manhattan upbringing.

"People act like playing football is putting a man on the moon," he said. "There's sophistication to football, but it's not curing cancer. It's, frankly, having the balls to think outside the box to do something."

All of this might have been the perfect backdrop for Moglia's approach after Coastal Carolina president David DeCenzo finally gave him his shot in 2012 -- a coach shunned by risk-averse colleges now embracing change in a way few people in the business would dare. But the truth is this is how Moglia has always operated. It's in his DNA.

As a kid, Moglia spent time working in his father's grocery store and became fascinated with how the business operated. If employees shirked, his father would pick up the slack. Menial jobs were given top priority, while the task of selling product often took a backseat.

"I'm 15 years old thinking, why would you do that?" Moglia said.

His experience watching his father's struggles set the tone for Moglia's philosophy in both coaching and business.

His father was an avid pessimist, lamenting the family's struggles as the whims of fate. Every office at Coastal Carolina now features the logo for Moglia's preferred mantra -- "BAM" -- an acronym for "Be a man." There are no rules at Coastal Carolina, Moglia said, but there are standards. Everyone is held accountable for their own actions.

At practice, Moglia rarely speaks up. He haunts the sideline, jotting observations in a small notebook with his signature green pen. "That little green pen is famous," says George Glenn, Coastal's director of football operations who has coached with Moglia since the early 1970s. It's a ledger of every good rep and every bad one, the statistical basis for tweaks to the program that always seem to be interpreted as helpful suggestions, despite Moglia's role as the ultimate arbiter. He gives aptitude tests to every player upon arrival on campus to gauge how they learn best, then creates a customized approach for coaching each one.

He's rearranged the trainers' tables on the practice field to reduce the amount of time it takes players to get a drink of water.

He tracks every play from every practice and every game, and if it's routinely unsuccessful, it's ripped from the playbook.

He gives more reps at practice to his second-team players than the starters because wants veterans to refine skills, but he needs the back-ups to develop them.

Once a week, Moglia ends practice early and holds meetings to talk about life after football with his players. He's discussed everything from personal finances to mental health. After his talk on the latter subject, 11 players came to his office in the ensuing weeks to admit they'd dealt with depression, and he'd inspired them to seek help.

If it's all a bit unorthodox, that's a good thing. That's what separates Moglia's team from everyone else.

"I'm not going to be better because I work hard," Moglia said. "Everybody works hard. So how do I make up that difference? I've got to find something that's different."

Moglia's hire at Coastal Carolina in 2012 was predictably controversial. His predecessor, David Bennett, had a solid track record, strong ties to the community and some national cache thanks to a colorful news conference outburst that went viral on the Web.

But Moglia was confident. He'd coached a season for the Omaha Nighthawks in the financially troubled United Football League in 2010, and when he applied for the job at Coastal, he listed every player on the Nighthawks roster as a reference. "They may not have all liked me," Moglia said, "but they all respected the job I did." At his introductory press conference, he made no grandiose promises about wins or championships, but simply said his team would make the school and the community proud.

Moglia earned coach of the year honors in his first season on the job. In two years, Coastal has won 20 games and two conference titles. The Chanticleers have won 17 of their last 18 regular-season games against FCS foes, and those early critics have all but disappeared.

Still, it takes years to build a program, Moglia said, and he estimates Coastal Carolina has achieved only about 75 percent of his vision. There's still more data to be collected, opportunities to be exploited. But he's not interested in predicting the future. That's a lesson he learned on Wall Street.

"The problem with the business world is you have too many forecasters," he said. "Nobody knows what the world's going to look like five years from now. No clue. None. Zero. People say they do. They don't."

Moglia likes to look at the past to peck away at the tradition and uncover its weaknesses. The future is an impossibly fickle variable, but the past is constant and full of valuable information that so many other coaches assume they understand, but they don't. That's his story, really. People get too caught up in his unlikely journey to appreciate the impact each stop along the way made on him.

Moglia loves Frank Sinatra's "My Way." When he dies, he wants it played at his funeral, which seems only appropriate for a New York boy who made his way from Dyckman Street to Wall Street to a college in a sleepy town on the coast of South Carolina.

But really, Moglia just had the courage to go where the numbers told him to go. When he was broke, he left football. When he was flush, he went back.

"With what I've been through in my career, I'm going to fail at this?" Moglia said. "It's not a big risk."