Tom Monaghan

Tom Monaghan has accomplished a great many things in his yet-unfinished life. The billionaire entrepreneur? Certainly. Successful businessman? Sure. Collector? Formerly, but not in any defining sense. Conservative Catholic leader? Definitely. Visionary? Maybe. Twenty-first century evangelist and savior of Western civilization? Possibly, if you talk to him.

However you label the owner of the Detroit Tigers from 1983 to 1992, or whatever you choose to say about him — and he really doesn’t care, either way — Monaghan is a true believer. Believing his story to be a real-life Horatio Alger tale, Monaghan marches with a determined step well to the right of, and far behind, the materialistic march of modern, secular society.

The life of this unlikely public figure continues to serve as both inspiration to many deeply religious Catholics as well as an object lesson to others regarding the corrupting influence of money and ego. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic American novel The Great Gatsby and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities — a late-century cultural touchstone of greed, power, and arrogance in New York City — bear more than a passing resemblance to the arc of Tom Monaghan’s life. Yet the tragic central figures of Fitzgerald’s and Wolfe’s works — primarily motivated by greed and power — are not nearly so complex or as interesting as Monaghan, whose life can hardly be viewed as tragic.

It would be facile to simply call Monaghan a “Master of the Universe,” yet Wolfe’s vivid description of the self-anointed potentates of Wall Street rings more than a little true. In his religious fervor, Tom Monaghan really does seem to want to play the role of such a master. The difference is that Monaghan the younger wanted to be a master in both the real and the spiritual realms: In effect, he dared attempt to defy the lesson of Matthew 6:24 by serving both God and mammon. In his retirement, Monaghan has mostly limited himself to trying to serve God.

If one had any doubts about Monaghan’s ambitious goals, a 2008 DBusiness magazine profile of Monaghan, entitled “Earning His Wings,” would dispel them. As a publication covering the business community of Southeastern Michigan, DBusiness is not known for its hard-hitting journalism, and its publisher knows and admires Monaghan. So the profile was definitely friendly, which makes it especially revealing. “The devout Catholic patriarch of Ave Maria University now spends his days toiling in the Florida sunshine, making sure that he and his disciples are on the right path to heaven.”

Tom Monaghan became a billionaire because he had an idea that almost anyone else could have had. When one thinks about it, it’s almost as if Monaghan had a flash of genius and then plucked a billion bucks out of the air.

The dust jacket of Monaghan’s 1986 autobiography, Pizza Tiger, summarized his philosophy quite nicely: “Tom Monaghan built Domino’s Pizza around a single concept: Pizza should be delivered hot to the customer in thirty minutes or less. His commitment to the customer, his attention to the details of production, and his dedication to quality have revolutionized the pizza industry and made Domino’s Pizza a household name in America.”

Note that quality came third in the priority list (not a criticism). “Quality control” was primarily process and quantity control — which is nothing to dismiss. Portion control was rigorous, for good reason. Countless restaurants have failed because the owner didn’t understand the value of portion and inventory control, or because employees took too many five-finger discounts or slipped their friends too many freebies.

While Monaghan’s flash of genius was critical, it didn’t void the need for endless hours of monastic devotion that included years of hands-on experience, experimentation, and learning different skills on the job. But the foundation of the billion-dollar pizza delivery franchise business was there: Locate takeout-only stores with very limited menus near dormitories or student ghettos in college towns full of young men who don’t plan and can’t or won’t cook, but who have discretionary income. Then deliver reliably hot and consistent pizza to drunk, stoned, and sleep-deprived college students in a half-hour or less. (Military bases were also excellent locations.)

Monaghan’s desire for complete control served him well when he was building his empire. After he became emperor of all he surveyed, however, his lust for control sometimes got him into trouble. Monaghan could be seen as a modern-day King Lear, but with a lust for control in the name of doing God’s work.

Thomas Stephen Monaghan was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1937 to Francis Monaghan, a truck driver, and Anna Monaghan, an aspiring nurse. Tom had one brother, James, two years younger. Francis Monaghan died of peritonitis on Christmas Eve 1941.

Struggling to bring up two boys after her husband’s death, Anna felt she had to place her sons in foster homes so that she could complete nursing school. The boys were placed in a succession of foster homes, then endured six years in a Catholic orphanage in Jackson, Michigan, run by Felician nuns from Poland. There Sister Mary Berarda became young Tom’s mentor as well as a mother figure. Monaghan has spoken fondly of Sister Berarda in many interviews, crediting her with giving him the will to succeed while instilling a moral compass that would guide him the rest of his life. Despite this encouragement and visits from his mother, life in the orphanage was hard, and Tom did not thrive.

After becoming a nurse and taking the boys back home when Tom was in the sixth grade, Anna (now living in Traverse City, Michigan) ended up fighting incessantly with her rebellious older son. Tom was again placed in foster care, including living with a farm family in rural northern Michigan, which he liked. Through all his travails, young Tom dreamed of baseball, architecture, and his idol Frank Lloyd Wright.

A parish priest served as a father figure to the lost boy. Tom applied to and was admitted to St. Joseph’s, a minor seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Tom’s religious training in the 10th grade lasted less than a year before he was expelled for disciplinary reasons, crushing his dream of becoming a priest. Back home again, Tom’s already tenuous relationship with his mother deteriorated further, and he would spend half a year in a state facility for juvenile delinquents. Rescued from his purgatory there, Tom was taken in by an aunt and uncle in Ann Arbor while he finished high school. Tom graduated from St. Thomas High School in 1955, ranked last in his class of 44.

Unable to get into the University of Michigan, Monaghan attended Ferris State College in rural Big Rapids, Michigan. After getting good grades in his freshman year, Monaghan wanted to apply to Michigan. Lacking money for tuition, however, Monaghan enlisted in the Marines — while intending to join the Army! He served honorably from 1956 to 1959. After being discharged, the gullible (by his own description) veteran was duped by someone he met while hitchhiking and swindled of all the money he had diligently saved out of his meager military pay.

After returning to Ann Arbor, Monaghan intended to work his way through the University of Michigan while studying architecture. But he proved far better at business than academics, dropping out twice during his first year there before giving up on college.

Monaghan’s relationships with his nuclear family are as complex as his business dealings. When he first became famous, Monaghan told the hard-knocks story of his youth, the orphanage, and Sister Berarda over and over, letting people erroneously believe that he had grown up as an orphan. When the media learned that Anna was still alive, it was quite a surprise to the fourth estate and an embarrassment to her estranged child.

Anna died in 1988, reportedly after reconciliation, and Monaghan’s tone toward her became much softer – if still not overly affectionate. “She did the best she could,” he told People magazine in 1989, while also saying that his mother “couldn’t stand” him. Based on Tom’s many negative comments about his mother in his autobiography, the feeling was mutual.

Tom Monaghan married Marjorie Zybach, a Lutheran, in 1962 after meeting her while delivering pizza to a dormitory at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant. The couple had four daughters in the next decade: Mary, Susan, Margaret, and Barbara.

Though she has reportedly attended Mass every Sunday with her husband for almost five decades, Marjorie remained a faithful Lutheran. Unlike the spouses of many famous people, “Margie” neither sought out nor was victimized by the media spotlight, remaining virtually unseen and unheard by the public as her husband became a globetrotting businessman. She was heavily involved in her husband’s pizza business, serving as bookkeeper, financial adviser, company payroll supervisor, and corporate director over the years.

That doesn’t mean that Mrs. Monaghan didn’t have a life or mind of her own, as she first demonstrated when she ignored her mother’s strong dislike of her beau. In 1989 the National Organization for Women organized a boycott of Domino’s because of its owner’s outspoken pro-life stance and his funding of anti-abortion causes. Yet later that year, in the People piece about her husband, Marjorie pointedly commented, “If men had babies, there would be no laws against abortion.”

An obsession with control has defined Tom Monaghan’s life. When he did not have control, the confident rebel refused to follow the rules. When he did have control, he reached for more while consistently refusing to follow the rules.

Monaghan was driven by his sense of morality, which reinforced his unwillingness to compromise. He expected nonnegotiable loyalty from his employees and punished those he deemed disloyal – even otherwise excellent employees who lacked his defining zeal for making pizza.

Measured by his own words as well as those of outside observers, Tom Monaghan was stubborn, hypercompetitive, and a micromanager. News about Monaghan and quotes by him — especially in Pizza Tiger — also suggest he was obsessed with his reputation and status and exhibited emotional instability. This was especially true in his youth, when he was quite willing to resort to fisticuffs to solve problems. But his well-chronicled spending sprees on more than 200 cars plus Frank Lloyd Wright houses and objects — including $8 million for a handmade Bugatti and $1.6 million for a Wright dining room set — showed that he did not outgrow those characteristics after making a fortune.

Nevertheless, those same traits can drive success in some business contexts. Founders are often in love with their own ideas, behaving like missionaries trying to convert others to their product or service. A person with that level of passion is well suited to handle the risks and intense downturns often associated with a startup business. Monaghan was able to overcome failures time and again with Domino’s, partly due to his unwillingness to accept the realities of his situation. Ultimately, Monaghan overcame his control-freak tendencies enough to allow management experts to help shape Domino’s direction during its long, uneven, and very complicated expansion.

Monaghan wanted others to succeed while they admired him for what a good person he was as he strove to be the best or the greatest in whatever he did. Franchising turned out to be a good business model for Monaghan’s personality.

In 1960 Monaghan found his vocation as well as his salvation in the unlikely form of a pizza parlor — though it certainly wasn’t clear at the time. He and his brother bought a shuttered, nondescript pizzeria named DomiNick’s in Ypsilanti near Eastern Michigan University. The purchase price of less than $1,000 was secured with a down payment of less than $100 cash. Within a year, Tom traded a used Volkswagen Beetle to his sibling (who had a day job with the Postal Service) and became the sole owner.

Though the beginning was modest, Monaghan was ambitious and quickly moved to expand his operation. He was fast-talked into taking on a wastrel partner, then opened a second store in Mount Pleasant in 1961. The partnership soon owned more pizzerias, including one in Ann Arbor serving the lucrative University of Michigan market. With the original pizzeria providing most of the cash flow and with Monaghan doing most of the work, the partnership collapsed and was dissolved, with Monaghan liable for all of the partnership’s mountain of debt.

In 1965, Monaghan incorporated and renamed his growing enterprise Domino’s Pizza after his rights to the DomiNick’s name were withdrawn by the original owner. Living a spartan lifestyle and working almost 24/7, Monaghan kept things afloat and paid off the debt created by his ex-partner. Two years later, the pizza business was going well enough that Monaghan licensed his first franchise — also located in Ypsilanti. He spent the rest of the 1960s building his franchising business, assiduously refining his pizza production methods, and surviving calamities like the fire that destroyed his underinsured headquarters and commissary in 1968.

An ill-advised deviation from his sound, student- and military-based business plan (an expansion into serving residential neighborhoods) caused a major crisis in 1970. Though Domino’s narrowly avoided bankruptcy, Monaghan was forced to give up control of the company for a year and was sued by his franchisees. Continuing his maniacal devotion to his work, the single-minded pizza entrepreneur started expanding his chain again, opening his 100th store in 1975 and his 200th in 1978. In between, he survived another franchisee insurrection plus a bitter trademark-infringement lawsuit by Amstar (maker of Domino Sugar) that was tried in federal court in Atlanta. That litigation cost Monaghan a lot of money, time, and energy in the late 1970s as Domino’s lost at the trial level, then won upon appeal in 1980.

Battle-scarred but definitely unbowed, with an unswerving devotion to customer service and an unshakeable faith in his ultimate success, Monaghan forged ahead. Aided by a nationwide popularity in fast-food franchising, he rapidly expanded his business in the 1980s. By 1983, it had all come together for the energetic pizza baron. In that momentous year, Domino’s opened its 1,000th store as well as its first franchise outside the United States. Riding high, Monaghan also purchased the Detroit Tigers for $53 million — the most money ever paid for a sports franchise at the time. If that weren’t enough, he founded the Ave Maria Foundation. (Though no longer affiliated with Domino’s or the Tigers, Monaghan remained in 2010 as chair of the foundation.)

The Detroit Tigers were owned by a John Fetzer, a colorless — but very well-respected — broadcasting tycoon who had made his fortune as a pioneer in the early days of radio in the 1920s and 1930s. Fetzer had turned away many inquires about selling the club in the three decades that he had owned the Tigers. Yet team president Jim Campbell handpicked Monaghan as a potential buyer, looking toward the inevitable day that Fetzer decided to sell.

New owner Tom Monaghan was living a fantasy life as his Tigers steamrolled all competition in 1984, winning a World Series championship and making an estimated $10 million or more in profits on his investment in the first year.

Helicoptering from Domino’s headquarters in nearby Ann Arbor to Tigers games, landing on the roof of a taxicab company across the street, Monaghan was both extremely visible and very likable. He was treated favorably by the media for his accessibility and wide-eyed enthusiasm for the game; for decades, the Detroit press had rarely had access to the former owner. Things couldn’t have gone better.

As it turned out, lots of things could go wrong, and not just on the field. And they did. Keeping Fetzer as chair of the board after the sale, Monaghan also retained the Tigers’ management team — who looked like geniuses in 1984. Yet their hidebound resistance to change and Domino’s unforeseen troubles would ruin the club before the end of the decade.

Although Fetzer had made his fortune in broadcasting, the conservative Tigers were not nearly so innovative in televising their games under his ownership, showing only 52 games in 1983 (including only seven home games). Under Monaghan, the Tigers made a deal to broadcast an additional 80 games on pay cable via PASS (Pro Am Sports System) in 1984, catching up with other clubs in large markets that had taken advantage of cable TV’s huge potential.

Watching their hometown heroes on TV in the mid-1980s was sweet for Detroit fans, who had only to flip the channel to see how chic their blue-collar team had become. In 1983 Roy Scheider starred as a fading ballplayer in the upbeat Disney television movie Tiger Town, filmed at Tiger Stadium with cooperation of the team. On the CBS hit show Magnum, P.I., hunky Tom Selleck — jauntily sporting an ever-present Tigers cap — saved damsels in distress while solving crimes as he raced around Hawaii in his Ferrari.

After 1984 the Tigers were proclaimed to be a budding dynasty, though that dynasty proved to exist only in the high hopes of the fans and in the palavering of the pundits. The Tigers finished third in both 1985 and 1986 (behind Toronto and Boston, respectively) as Sparky Anderson’s charges struggled. The American League East was a tough division, though it certainly wasn’t home to any great teams in the mid-1980s. Yet the Tigers won only one more division title, edging Toronto on the final day of 1987 in a barn-burning finish to one of the greatest pennant races of all time. They followed that triumph by being abruptly upset by the underdog Minnesota Twins in the 1987 American League Championship Series.

By the end of the ‘87 season, it was clear that something was wrong in Tigertown, as fan support for the club had waned since 1984. Monaghan wondered openly about the relatively small weeknight crowds at Tiger Stadium during the last few days of the season when the Tigers were struggling to catch Toronto, and Detroit failed to sell out its home ALCS games.

Two years later the Tigers hit rock bottom, winning just 59 games. In response, Monaghan — acting more like a sports groupie than an experienced, clear-eyed business executive — made the mistake of tapping his friend Bo Schembechler to turn the Tigers around. Schembechler, the autocratic former University of Michigan football coach and athletic director, had zero experience in professional sports. His attempt to impose a football-style mentality on a radically different sport ended in disaster; meanwhile, business troubles caused Monaghan to drain the club of the cash needed for rebuilding so he could service Domino’s hefty debt (estimated at one point at a half-billion dollars).

Schembechler came aboard the foundering Detroit ship on January 8, 1990, as president and chief operating officer, with Jim Campbell becoming chairman of the board and CEO. Campbell, general manager or president of the Tigers since 1962, was Major League Baseball’s longest-tenured executive. Bill Lajoie initially remained as general manager in the new regime, a post he had held since October 1983. This administrative overlap demonstrated Monaghan’s inability to grasp how truly desperate the situation was.

Moving into this ossified management group, Schembechler tried to shake things up by emphasizing athleticism when scouting and drafting prospects (in direct contrast to the Tigers themselves, who were anything but athletic). A year later Schembechler hired Joe McDonald as senior vice president of player procurement and development, allowing Schembechler to take over some of the GM duties. In September 1991 Jerry Walker was hired as senior vice president of major league personnel, filling essentially a general manager’s role. McDonald served under Walker before being canned in 1992.

For three stormy years Schembechler ran the sinking ship despite being completely out of his element. In one of his worst miscalculations, he forced legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell to retire after the 1991 season. Whole forests of pulpwood trees in Quebec were leveled to provide the newsprint needed for the abuse heaped upon the Tigers by the media and by outraged fans. Even worse, Schembechler and the Tigers witlessly allowed the embarrassing soap opera to drag on for a full year as Harwell milked every moment of his farewell season at WJR’s microphone.

Nine years after he had fulfilled a boyhood dream in buying the Tigers, after reports that the club had to borrow money from the American League to make its payroll, Monaghan sold the Tigers. That was painful enough. What made it worse, because no other qualified buyer could be found, was that Monaghan had to sell out to his longtime rival, Detroit Red Wings owner and fellow Michigan pizza mogul Mike Ilitch (co-founder and co-owner with his wife, Marian, of the Little Caesars Pizza chain).

Schembechler and Campbell were fired in August 1992 as Ilitch prepared to assume control. Claiming he had a guarantee for 10 years, Schembechler sued Monaghan in what became a bitter dispute over his compensation package — sketched out on a restaurant napkin! The suit was settled out of court two years later.

Detroit fans were pleased when Ilitch demonstrated a commitment to revitalizing the team that was sorely lacking from the cash-strapped Monaghan, whose enthusiasm for his underperforming baseball club had waned long before the end. Another positive was that Ilitch quickly spent millions of dollars sprucing up the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. That contrasted starkly with Monaghan, who had tried to persuade the virtually bankrupt city of Detroit to subsidize a new ballpark after 1987 when he decided that Tiger Stadium was no longer viable.

Monaghan said in a 2008 interview with the Ann Arbor Business Review that when he purchased the team, “I thought the stadium was a shrine.” He wanted to restore it: “[I]t had a lot of historical significance and it meant a lot to me.” Yet within four years, the pizza tiger was reportedly looking for sites for a new ballpark, expressing disappointment with attendance at Tiger Stadium.

“Probably the biggest mistake I ever made was buying the Tigers,” Monaghan told DBusiness 16 years after he sold the team, adding that he had lost focus on Domino’s when he had opportunities to make changes during the pizza-delivery wars of the mid-1980s. Monaghan’s leadership approach could be effective during the founding stage of an organization or when an organization was ethically challenged, but he faced a “new territory” challenge in an existing industry in baseball.

As the new owner of the Detroit Tigers in 1983, he would probably have been better served by reaching outside of his comfort zone, especially by seeking out the best practices of the most effective team owners. That would have built an internal team better equipped to compete in the contemporary environment. Ideally, Monaghan should have surrounded himself with executives and advisers who thought differently than he so that they could establish a solid and innovative business plan for the future.

That was not Tom Monaghan, however. The narcissistic, self-made “Pizza Tiger” was in many ways an extension of his mentor John Fetzer, whom he viewed as “far and away the greatest owner in the history of baseball.” That same great man had personally blessed Monaghan as the holder of Detroit’s legacy and traditions; those orthodox ties hurt the Tigers’ long-term success. Monaghan took the helm of a well-established aristocratic organization in need of a rejuvenation and, for the most part, magnified the weaknesses of the aristocracy.

The hoopla and happiness of 1984 started to unravel later that decade as Monaghan enjoyed his fame and fortune while neglecting his core business. In 1985 Domino’s opened almost a thousand new outlets, finishing with more than 2,800 stores. In 1989 the fast-growing international chain celebrated the debut of its 5,000th store.

According to Monaghan, he dramatically reordered his priorities after reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The book’s chapter on pride struck a nerve with the wealthy exec, who concluded that he was “probably the biggest sinner in the world.” Taking a self-styled and self-defined vow of poverty, Monaghan sold many of his expensive possessions.

After his soul-searching, the wealthy executive devoted himself again to his foundering pizza business. The divestiture of many of the ancillary assets acquired along the way was no doubt also made necessary by Domino’s problems — not the least of which was servicing its crippling debt.

One of those extraneous assets was an executive retreat and gold resort called Domino’s Lodge on Drummond Island, east of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in chilly northern Lake Huron. The island was the scene of one of Monaghan’s weirdest adventures: a lavish, Gatsby-like party staged in November 1987 for about 70 friends, VIPs, and Tigers players. Monaghan said he planned the party to celebrate Detroit’s presumed World Series victory before Detroit was upset in the ALCS. Guests were flown in and out on nine private planes. Limousines, yachts, and a helicopter provided local transportation. A jet was reportedly sent back to Detroit for the sole purpose of picking up a forgotten tuxedo. Columnists and commentators clucked about Monaghan’s profligacy, one calling it “wretched excess.”

The over-the-top party included the making of an ersatz movie starring the guests, with local citizens hired to line the red carpet and scream like groupies at a gala Hollywood premiere. Fake money imprinted with the images of Tom and Marjorie was distributed; the scrip could be redeemed by guests for luxury gifts. Estimates of the extravaganza’s cost ranged from $300,000 to a cool $1 million.

It’s hard to tell whether the self-confident and headstrong Monaghan simply ignored the remote location’s limitations when planning his retreat/resort — or simply was ignorant of them. The compound was six hours from Detroit by car and almost two hours east of the Mackinac Bridge, and can have frost in July and August. In either case, Monaghan took a bath, recouping only $3 million of the $28 million he reportedly had poured into the ill-fated investment.

The early 1990s saw more troubles for Monaghan. After losing or settling several multimillion-dollar, high-profile lawsuits by people injured by Domino’s drivers in auto accidents, the company withdrew its famous 30-minute-or-free guarantee. Monaghan sought a buyer for the company, asking a billion dollars to no avail for several years.

After almost four decades in the pizza business, Monaghan in 1998 turned over management of the company that made him rich and famous and had financed his dreams and his ideals. He sold 93 percent of Domino’s to Bain Capital for what was reported to be a billion dollars, staying on the board of directors and retaining the title of chairman emeritus. It was only after Monaghan sold the company that female employees were allowed to wear slacks instead of skirts at the company’s headquarters.

Monaghan’s primary tangible legacy in Ann Arbor is the enormous, spectacular Domino’s Farms office park, its centerpiece a half-mile-long building paralleling heavily traveled US 23 at its intersection with busy M-14 east of the city in Ann Arbor Township. The Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired, copper-cladded, green-neon-accented modernist structure contains nearly one million square feet of space. Monaghan spent $2 million on his custom-built personal office there.

Due to its grand scale and attendant financing issues, Domino’s Farms’ signature building took 15 years to complete. Meanwhile, Monaghan’s dream of building a leaning, 30-story “Golden Beacon” tower — modeled on a larger Wright design that was never built and quickly dubbed the “Leaning Tower of Pizza” — had to be shelved.

In 1987, Monaghan founded Legatus, an effort to meld business and religion. The organization’s website describes its founding with religious imagery: “Just hours after meeting Pope John Paul II in May 1987, the inspiration for Legatus hit Tom Monaghan like a ‘lightning bolt.’” Monaghan himself has described the moment as “divine inspiration.”

According to the organization, “Like Tom, Legatus members are business leaders — men and women with varying interests and diverse talents who all share one overriding goal: to become better Catholics and, in turn, positively impact their business and personal lives.”

Only Catholic CEOs of major companies were eligible through the original criteria for membership in Legatus. Though broadened somewhat since then, the organization remains limited in most cases to owners, managing partners, and top executives in companies worth $10 million or more.

In a 1999 profile in the New York Times, Monaghan talked frankly about his devotion to doing God’s work via Legatus. “I listen to every idea, and if I don’t agree I give a decisive but sensitive response. That’s what I did with the franchisees my whole career. Legatus is a volunteer group. If people don’t like what I’m doing, they can go form their own organization.”

Carrying out his self-imposed duty as an American Catholic business missionary, Monaghan founded Ave Maria Institute in 1998, which became a small Catholic school called Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti. (“Ave Maria” is Latin for Hail Mary.) Trying to simultaneously speed up and assure accreditation for the school, Monaghan made a deal in 2000 to take control of St. Mary’s College in the Detroit suburb of Orchard Lake, a foundering century-old historically Polish Catholic college with a geographically unrestricted charter from the State of Michigan.

The quasi-merger of the two Catholic schools experienced many problems and was dissolved three years later when Monaghan’s administrators — who obviously hadn’t done proper due diligence — figured out that the St. Mary’s charter couldn’t be used to get Ave Maria College accredited. The shotgun marriage, though, did produce a memorable quote from St. Mary’s president, Dr. Thaddeus Radzilowski, who noted that Monaghan “wanted a school that produced three-hundred-pound tackles who were also theology majors.” (Among Monaghan’s dreams was starting a Division I football program at the 400-student college.)

The much more ambitious Ave Maria Law School opened in Ann Arbor in 2000. The brainchild of Catholic legal scholar and University of Detroit Mercy law professor Steve Safranek, the new law school was designed as a bastion of conservative Catholic legal studies, turning out morally upright lawyers who would infuse the body politic with their conservative Catholic values.

The triumphal start for the law school quickly melted down, however. When Monaghan tried to move Ave Maria College and Ave Maria Law School to his planned new campus at Domino’s Farms, the Ann Arbor Planning Commission refused to change the zoning. As a result, in 2003, Monaghan announced the founding of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, with rumors flying that the college and law school of the same name would soon relocate there. Though the Ave Maria Law School administration denied any plans to move, the announcement of the long-expected move came immediately after the law school received full accreditation in 2005.

Confusion, controversy, and contention followed the decision. Some faculty and staff members openly criticized the pending move; some of the dissenters were fired. Lawsuits followed, including one by founding faculty member Safranek, who was fired after being censured, suspended, and having his tenure revoked.

Many existing law school students transferred out, and the quality of incoming students deteriorated markedly. The school fell from a top-five ranking to the lowest tier in the prestigious U.S. News & World Report ratings of American law schools by 2008, remaining in the U.S. News basement in 2010. In 2009 Ave Maria was the only law school to flunk the US Department of Education fiscal stability test.

While Ave Maria Law School garnered headlines, bereft St. Mary’s College was absorbed by Madonna University of Livonia, Michigan, losing its independence along with half of its faculty as it became merely a branch campus. Ave Maria College closed in 2007 after buying out its handful of remaining students in Michigan.

Controversy ensued in Florida as well. Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, a friend and a former student of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) was fired from his position as provost at Ave Maria University, then rehired without any administrative responsibilities the next day after an outpouring of support from hundreds of students and some faculty members. The only explanation ever given by the university for the sudden firing of the conservative priest – labeled “orthodoxy’s ultimate champion” by a biographer of Ratzinger – was “irreconcilable difference over administrative policies and practices.” Fessio continues to live at and support the university.

Probably the fairest and most insightful profile of Monaghan in recent years came in a very unlikely wrapper: the racy men’s magazine GQ. The writer, a Catholic named James O’Brien, mused: “The boldness of its very existence pulls me in and pushes me away. I feel my own faith pale by comparison. I think about how I honor some of what it honors, but at the same time I am the thing from which it is running.”

Monaghan’s move to the Sun Belt was more than a change of venue from a crowded Rust Belt metropolis to wide-open space on the edge of Southwest Florida’s Everglades. It was also an attempt to free himself and his grand visions from the constraints of what he viewed as unfriendly liberals in government and their stifling regulation. The contrast between the governmental cultures of Michigan and Florida is obvious, and uncounted thousands of other citizens and business owners have made that same choice.

The move also gave Monaghan complete control of his planned Catholic utopia — or so he thought. His 2006 comments about banning contraception and pornography from Ave Maria brought threats from the American Civil Liberties Union of a lawsuit if he tried to impose his personal morality on the town government.

While Monaghan backed away from his absolutist stance, subsequent remarks make it clear he expected and would try to ensure that Ave Maria residents and businesses will make the “right” choice. Misguided initiatives at Ave Maria University like a planned dress code (quickly rescinded) that would have mandated jackets and ties or suits for male employees and would have banned slacks for female employees during work hours reinforced the divide between Monaghan’s acolytes and critics.

Monaghan’s ambition for Ave Maria town and university are as lofty as the controversial 100-foot-tall oratory (based on his design sketches) that dominates the town and faces the campus. Though drastically scaled back from his original plans, Monaghan’s oratory cost between $24 million and $40 million, part of the pizza baron’s investment of more than $200 million of his own money. Unlike in Michigan, where he reportedly micromanaged his academic holdings through surrogates, Monaghan appointed himself chancellor of Ave Maria University despite his lack of any academic credentials. After several years holding classes in temporary quarters in Naples, the university moved to its gleaming new permanent campus adjacent to the eponymous town in 2007. The law school relocated to Naples that same year.

Unfortunately, the slumping real estate market and 2008 financial meltdown delayed the development substantially, and reports of slow home sales and other financial problems with the development have surfaced afterward.

In the penultimate paragraph of the DBusiness profile, the indefatigable entrepreneur spoke about his core values. “I realize what I’m doing is setting myself up for criticism. The most important thing to me is to get to heaven. I feel the most important thing I can do for my fellow man is [to help] him get there.”




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“ACLU Opposes Creation of ‘Catholic Town,’” Catholic News Agency, February 23, 2006.

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“Best Law Schools [2010].” U.S. News & World Report.

Bishop, Katy. “No Pants: Ave Maria University’s New Employee Dress Code Requires Women to Wear Skirts, Dresses.” Naples Daily News, March 9, 2010.

Bishop, Katy. “Whatever Happened to? Ave Maria Law School Move to Collier County.” Naples Daily News, January 2, 2010.

Boyer, Peter. “The Deliverer: A Pizza Mogul Funds a Moral Crusade.” New Yorker. February 19, 2007.

Brickey, Homer. “The Party’s Over — Except for the Criticism.” Toledo Blade, November 8, 1987.

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Cox, Jennifer. “In the Beginning: Michigan Town Feels ‘Duped’ by College.” Naples Daily News, August 20, 2007.

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Elliott, Marci. “Ave Maria Founder Tom Monaghan Is a Man of Faith, Plans and Action.” Naples Daily News, April 13, 2003.

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Haire, John. “The Haire Net.” Cass City (Michigan) Chronicle, November 11, 1987.

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“Madonna University Takes Over St. Mary’s College” Orchard Lake Good News, undated.

Marklein, Mary Beth. “Birth of Clean Town: Ave Maria.” USA Today, July 23, 2007.

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Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “Domino’s Illuminatio Mea/Tom Monaghan Goes from Pizza Delivery to Educational Deliverance.” Wall Street Journal, August 19, 2006.

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Taylor, Bill. “On a Mission from God.” Toronto Star, March 2, 2006.

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Turley, Jonathan. “Ave Maria Law School Invokes Status as Religious Institution and ‘Ecclesiastical Abstention’ to Dismiss Law Professors’ Lawsuit.” Res Ipsa Loquitur blog, July 5, 2009.

Vlasic, Bill. “Monaghan Finds Drummond Buyer.” Detroit News, April 5, 1992.

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Lou Beer, Esq.

Tom Linn, Esq.

Dave Mesry

Dr. Ted Radzilowski

Rocque Lipford, Esq.

Websites [Archdiocese of Detroit] [Young Presidents’ Organization]

E-mail Communications

Steve Weingarden, Ph.D., organizational psychologist.


Photo credit

Courtesy of Ave Maria Radio

Full Name

Thomas Stephen Monaghan


March 25, 1937 at Ann Arbor, MI (US)

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