What happened when a billionaire pizza mogul tried to build an elite Catholic law school.
To escape, Monaghan turned to fantasy. He mused about becoming a priest or a shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, and imagined trading in his threadbare clothes for elegant belongings. “I would dream of having things—not the good or the better, but the best,” Monaghan writes in his memoir, Pizza Tiger. “And I could visualize them so perfectly, it was like actually possessing them. I would picture my house or cabin and sometimes I would even build it in my imagination.” These mental building projects later gave way to a fascination with architecture. Monaghan spent his teenage years plowing through books on Frank Lloyd Wright. He hoped to one day follow in the great architect’s footsteps, but this dream turned out to be beyond his reach. Monaghan graduated at the bottom of his high school class and enrolled in a seminary, but he was kicked out because he “lacked vocation.” A few years later, he moved to Ann Arbor with the hopes of studying architecture at the University of Michigan, but his finances were shaky and his math skills lacking. Though he enrolled three times, he never completed a single semester.
Then, in the winter of 1960, Monaghan and his brother heard that a man in Ypsilanti had a pizzeria he was looking to sell on the cheap. The pair managed to scrape together $75 for the down payment, and before long they were slinging pizzas. A few months later, Monaghan traded a Volkswagen Beetle for his brother’s share of the business. If he couldn’t be an architect, he decided, he would throw himself into building a pizza empire.
For all his struggles in the classroom, Monaghan turned out to be a brilliant businessman. Early on, he dropped sub sandwiches from his menu and began focusing on delivery to college campuses, which was far more lucrative than sit-down service. He also invented a new insulated pizza box. Unlike its chipboard predecessors, it could be stacked without squishing the pizzas inside. This allowed him to deliver more pies per trip, and assured they were warm when they arrived. Monaghan eventually began spreading his model to other college towns, and by the mid-1980s, nearly three new Domino’s franchises were opening every day.
The key to Domino’s growth was a tightly controlled franchise system. When a new store opened, headquarters would send a truck stocked with everything from pizza ovens to forks and aprons. Store managers worked from a thick operations manual, known as “the Bible,” which dictated every aspect of operations, down to the smallest detail. Monaghan also kept a tight rein on his employees: store workers were barred from sitting down during their shifts, and executives were expected to uproot their lives and move across the country on Monaghan’s whim. At headquarters, female staffers had to wear skirts or dresses that fell below the knees—pants were strictly forbidden.
As Monaghan’s business grew, so did his appetite for spending. He bought a Gulfstream jet, a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, and a fleet of cars—among them the Packard that had ferried Franklin Roosevelt to his 1933 inauguration, and a handmade Bugatti Royale. (The latter cost him $8 million, the most ever paid for a classic car.) He also began buying up Frank Lloyd Wright homes, and assembled the world’s largest collection of Wright furniture. But his most famous purchase was the Detroit Tigers, which he bought in 1983. When the team won the World Series the following year, Monaghan had his private helicopter ferry hundreds of Domino’s pizzas to Tiger Stadium.
Even during his prodigal years, Monaghan never lost sight of his Catholic roots. And beginning in the mid-1980s, he started delving more deeply into his faith, and embracing conservative Catholic causes. Then, in 1989, at the suggestion of a Catholic scholar friend, he read a passage from the C. S. Lewis classic Mere Christianity that railed against pride as “the essential vice, the utmost evil.” It dawned on Monaghan that his hunger for success and flashy belongings was pride in its purest form. He immediately swore what he called a “millionaire’s vow of poverty” and began shedding his possessions. Finally, in 1998, he sold Domino’s for an estimated $1 billion and announced that he was retiring from the pizza business so he could devote his time and money to Catholic education. “I want to die broke,” he declared.
It was later that year that Safranek and the other professors approached Monaghan with their idea for the Catholic law school. Their timing couldn’t have been better; Monaghan was already busy piecing together his educational empire. His first act had been to found Ave Maria College, a Catholic school in Ypsilanti. But he had trouble getting accreditation for the stand-alone venture, so he struck a deal to take over St. Mary’s College, a 120-year-old Catholic school in nearby Orchard Lake Village. In exchange for its accreditation charter, he would give the struggling institution the cash it needed to thrive—among other things, Monaghan planned to beef up the faculty and build a division-one football team. (Or, as St. Mary’s then President Thaddeus Radzilowski recalls, “He wanted a school that produced three-hundred-pound tackles who were also theology majors.”)
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