By Monte Burke
It’s a frigid early Sunday morning in the late fall of 1983. Joe Moglia, the 33-year-old defensive coordinator of the two-time defending Ivy League champion Dartmouth Big Green football team, lies awake in his bed in an unheated storage room located on the top floor of the Davis Varsity House, an old, red brick building on the school’s Hanover, New Hampshire campus. During daylight hours, from the room’s huge circular window, one can see the green grass of the football field, encircled by a vermillion running track that’s pinstriped with white lane lines. But it is now 4:00 AM, that dark unsettling hour when the minds of the sleepless become easy prey, when reality is sustained without a buffer.
Joe’s back nearly touches the icy cement floor, the springs on his single bed having long since surrendered to the fatigue of three decades of use. He watches his vaporized breaths blow into a thin slice of streetlamp light pouring in through the uncurtained window. His shirts hang from the room’s exposed water pipes like laundered ghosts. A half-dozen pigeons, sleepless themselves, are perched on the ledge outside his window, trilling softly.
To stave off the cold, Joe is wearing a gray sweat suit, the hood pulled over the ski hat on his head. He’s also wrapped four old Army blankets—providing all the suppleness of steel wool—around his body. Joe is fighting the urge to urinate. He doesn’t want to break the seal of warmth that his body has taken hours to create—the bathroom is down two flights of stairs, in the football team’s locker room.
The previous afternoon, Dartmouth had tied Columbia to remain undefeated in the Ivy League. They are very much in contention for their third straight league championship. For the past three seasons Dartmouth has been led by Joe’s defense, one of the best in college football. Though they are an undersized, slow-footed group, he has somehow managed to convince them that a football game is won as much with their heads and hearts as it is with their bodies.
It’s not unusual for a football coach to be awake at this hour. Sleeplessness is a common malady among this particular fraternity of men, who are judged, fairly or unfairly, by a single metric: whether they win or lose on Saturday afternoons. Astir, their brains hum, exulting in a victory or stewing over a loss or, perhaps, already fretting about next week’s opponents.
But Joe has something bigger than a football game on his mind. Since he was a teenager, he has worked toward his one abiding dream, his life-long obsession: He wants to become the head coach of a college football team.
But he has decided on this early morning in Hanover—well into the second year of his ascetic, solo existence in this musty storage room—that his dream must die.
“Be a man,” has always been the mantra of Joe Moglia. “Accept responsibility for your own actions.” He has lived that mantra.
Joe grew up poor, in a rough, drug-addled neighborhood in New York. His football dream led him out. By 1983, he’d spent 15 years in coaching, patiently working his way up the ranks toward his ultimate goal of becoming the head coach of his own program. His success with Dartmouth’s defense had set him up perfectly. After the 1983 season, he was offered a job on the defensive staff of the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes, the next step on the perfect coaching ladder he had painstakingly constructed himself.
He declined the job.
A divorce from the woman he married at age 19—the reason he was living in that unheated storage room— left him with four kids to take care of, something he could not do on an annual salary that would likely remain around $30,000 for the next few years. He decided he'd find a job on Wall Street, an implausible leap for someone with no training or experience in finance. No one thought he could do it. But through the sheer will and way of his personality, he made it in. A 17-year career at Merrill Lynch led to the CEO job at the online broker TD Ameritrade in 2001. There, he took a failing company and turned it into a giant, then deftly sidestepped the financial crisis in 2008, the year Merrill lost $28 billion and his main competitor, E-Trade, lost $1.3 billion. Joe made a profit of $800 million; his employees called him "coach."
And then he quit again.
At age 60, Joe decided it was time to chase the dream he'd deferred nearly three decades earlier. He wanted to become a college head coach. But he had a serious problem: no one would hire him. His background in finance—even with its huge successes—became a hindrance. No one took him seriously. College athletic directors weren’t willing to take a chance on a guy who’d been out of the game for that long. To buff up his resume, Joe took an unpaid internship with the University of Nebraska’s football team. Still, no one bit.
Three years into an increasingly desperate search, Joe finally got a job, with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, a faltering program in need of a fresh start. His first step was to immediately rid the team of its academic underachievers and malcontents; Joe wanted only a team of boys who would take on the challenge of becoming men.
But there was a huge amount of doubt when Joe is hired as the head coach at Coastal Carolina in 2012. He’d been out of the game for nearly three decades. There were charges that he bought the job, that he was merely some rich hobbyist. He was replacing a popular coach who’d founded the program a decade earlier. The president of the university, David DeCenzo, was ridiculed. “This is either the smartest or the dumbest decision I’ve ever made,” he said.
DeCenzo looked like he made the wrong choice halfway through the season. After winning the first two games, Joe’s team lost four in a row, including a 55-14 shellacking in one game that seemed to break their spirit. The murmurs around campus become shouts: This Moglia guy was in way over his head. His silly “Be a man” stuff was for high schoolers. His superfast offense was killing his weak defense.
At 2-4, it all looked hopeless. “You are what your record says you are,” Bill Parcells once famously quipped. The doubters—the Coastal fans, all of the athletic directors who’d passed him over—might have been right.
But then something happened. The team started to grow together. They bought into Joe’s message one practice, one play, one game at a time. Then they caught fire.
Joe’s team won the last five games of the year by an average of 30 points a game. The offense he’d helped design finally started to click. The patched-together defense played way over its head. And Coastal made the playoffs, then won their first-round game, making the season the most successful one by far in Coastal Carolina’s history, a feat unimaginable at the beginning of the season, and much less so halfway through it.
Joe had overcome serious odds to recapture his dream of becoming a head football coach. All of those doubts turned out to be a familiar echo of what he had heard all of his life.