Some stars of this year’s NCAA tournament will fill the NBA’s “one-and-done” requirement and make millions going pro. Others may soon be able to leverage their Big Dance performances into thousands over their college career with name, image and likeness rights. But for a small group of players—the benchwarmers—March Madness is a culmination of thousands of hours of practice with no monetary payoff, just a courtside seat and a minute or two on the hardwood in garbage time. And yet, Mat Ishbia wouldn’t take back a minute of it.
“It’s influenced me in almost every way from a business perspective,” Ishbia said from his office at United Wholesale Mortgage, in Pontiac, Mich. “The teamwork, the camaraderie, the work ethic, the holding people accountable—so many things that apply to our business here at UWM, which has helped us grow.”
Ishbia is the founder of UWM, the second-largest mortgage company in the U.S. But two decades ago, he was a walk-on point guard on Michigan State University’s men’s basketball team, averaging a mere 2 minutes 24 seconds and six-tenths of a point per game over his career. Today, he’s worth $13 billion, according to Forbes, enough to place him in the top 25 wealthiest people in the country.
Ishbia’s Spartans teams made a Sweet 16, two Final Fours and won the 2000 National Championship. You might recall Ishbia, who subbed in for star Mateen Cleaves with 25 seconds left in that game so the soon-to-be Pistons first-round pick would exit to cheers. In his few seconds on college hoops’ biggest stage, the future executive corralled a loose ball beyond the three-point line and charged in to take the final shot at the buzzer of the 89-76 victory. He missed.
Of course, even a garbage time appearance in a championship game is far more than most can say; many entrepreneurs have toiled in less successful circumstances. John Arrillaga, a Silicon Valley real estate billionaire, lettered on mediocre Stanford basketball teams in the 1950s. Former Sunoco CEO Lynn Laverty Elsenhans was a founding player of Rice University’s woman’s basketball team in 1975, early teams for which the school doesn’t even bother posting statistics online.
“You have to work hard, practice, be smart, assess your opponent, figure out what to do to win, and be willing to accept losses as a normal part of life,” Iams founder Clayton Mathile wrote in a post for the Council of Independent Colleges. Mathile played basketball for the Ohio Northern University Polar Bears in the late 1950s. His team’s records also aren’t posted by the school.
Like other business world success stories, Ishbia took some deeper impressions from his playing days than just the thrill of competition. In his final year in East Lansing, he served as an assistant to head coach Tom Izzo, whom he observed in great detail. One day, in a conference room where Izzo would be meeting with visiting recruits, Ishbia found the coach lifting the cover off each buffet tray and peering in. “I’m like, ‘Is he f——- hungry?’ What is he doing?” Ishbia recalls. Eyeing the spread, Izzo noticed the way the food had been arranged—the hot dogs were placed too far from the buns, for instance—and determined it would make players less efficient in grabbing their grub. The coach called the catering manager over to rearrange the food. “He’s the CEO of Michigan State basketball, and he’s focused on that? So that’s how I apply myself. I’ve got 9,000 people, but there’s no detail too small for me.”
Ishbia had been planning to move ahead in coaching, with Izzo arranging a position at Cleveland State for him. But Ishbia decided instead to try working at his father’s small mortgage company for a year. After a year, he found he loved the daily effort of getting better. He stayed and built the business, which had fewer than 10 people when he started, into the giant it is today. In addition to the being second-largest lender in the U.S. market, United Wholesale Mortgage is the largest writer of wholesale mortgages—that is, home loans sold through third parties, like credit unions and independent brokers. The company originated $183 billion in mortgages in 2020 and threw off $3.4 billion in net profit. The company went public—by SPAC, of course—in January. Two weeks later, Ishbia handed Michigan State its largest donation ever.
The former walk-on gave $32 million to the athletic department. Among the money’s uses: $2 million for the head men’s basketball coach to use in support of the program at his discretion and $20 million to expand the school’s football facilities (in part so other sports will benefit by the freed up space). He also directed $2 million to create Spartans For Life—a program assisting student athletes with post-career networking. The last effort is something close to Ishbia’s heart: He’s hired seven of his former Spartan teammates to work at United Wholesale, including Cleaves, who is now Leadership Coach at the firm.
Izzo visited Ishbia and Cleaves at UWM’s headquarters and was struck by the way Ishbia had translated basketball into the business world. “I’m walking through [and] all these people are huddled up, and I thought, ‘Why, are they calling a play or something?’” said Izzo in a Feb. 4 press conference called for Ishbia’s gift. “The captain gets together, and he tells the players, the players disperse, and they hit the other people. It was really cool and interesting for me, and if he wants to give me some credit for that, I don’t think I deserve it, but you know what, we’re all part of the same family.”
Despite giving the school the largest gift it’s ever received—and having endowed a marketing faculty position six years earlier—the billionaire didn’t ask for anything to be named after him, though he got a display case to be named for his parents. Perhaps the humility was a missed opportunity. Shortly after the gift, rival mortgage company Rocket Mortgage, owned by another MSU billionaire alum, Dan Gilbert, struck a deal to sponsor the men’s basketball team. Get ready to hear “MSU Spartans presented by Rocket Mortgage” for the next five years. Ishbia, for his part, says the pair have no competition over supporting Michigan State.
If the benchwarmer billionaire has his way, he and Gilbert, who also owns the Cleveland Cavaliers, will be frenemies in pro ball too: “If I could own a team one day in the NBA, that would be a dream come true and a lot of fun,” Ishbia said.
For now the 42-year old is focusing on running UWM, watching the tournament with his three kids—they all have Baylor winning out in their brackets—and appreciating all the sacrifice the players have put in to get there, from the starting five down to the guy still in the warm-up hoodie at the end of the bench.
“My job was to be the best third-string point guard,” Isbhia said. “We don’t win a championship without the trainers, the managers, the assistant coaches, the secretaries in the office…everyone’s got to do their role in order for a team to work. Be the best version of yourself.”
Note: The story was updated to correct the number of kids Ishbia has. (March 29, 2021, 3:05 p.m.)