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Nebraska's billion-dollar assistant

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."

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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.

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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