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Duke taps Texas A&M's Mike Elko as new head football coach

Duke football helmet
Mitchell Northam
Mike Elko steps into the football head coach role at Duke following the departure of David Cutcliffe. It's the first time Elko will take on a team head coaching position. In this Nov. 6, 2021 photo, a Duke football helmet sits under a bench as the Blue Devils battle Pitt at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.

The Blue Devils have a new leader on the gridiron.

Following a search that lasted less than two weeks, Duke announced Friday evening that it had hired Mike Elko as its new head football coach.

Elko, 44, was most recently the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. He succeeds David Cutcliffe, who Duke mutually parted ways with on Nov. 28 following a winless season in Atlantic Coast Conference play. Cutcliffe had been Duke’s head coach for 14 seasons and had guided the Blue Devils to six bowl games.

Duke is the first team that Elko will be the head coach of. His resume as an assistant is lengthy — beginning at Stony Brook in 1999 — and illustrates the epitome of a defensive-minded football coach.

"He has an innovative football mind and a natural ability to connect with both players and coaches around him,” Duke Vice President and Director of Athletics Nina King said in a statement Friday. “Mike has a proven track record of success and is deeply committed to the overall student-athlete experience.”

Elko has been a college football coach for 23 years, and he’s spent 18 of those as a defensive coordinator.

"Duke stands for excellence,” Elko said in a statement. “The university has excelled in everything they've ever tried to do, whether that'd be in academics or athletics. I'm excited to get to work."

Before joining Texas A&M in 2018, Elko had been in charge of defensive units at Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Bowling Green, Hofstra, Richmond, Fordham and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

An Ivy League graduate, Elko also coached defensive backs at his alma mater, Penn, in 2000. The native of South Brunswick, New Jersey was a safety for the Quakers from 1995 to 1998.

Statistically, Elko’s defense at Texas A&M was one of the best in the country this season. The Aggies ranked third nationally in points allowed per-game (15.9), second in rushing scores allowed per-game (0.5), eighth in yards allowed per-play (4.7), ninth in sacks (39), and seventh in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 71% of the time from that range.

During the four seasons that Elko was Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator, the Aggies went 34-14 and went to bowl games each year. Elko will not coach in Texas A&M’s Gator Bowl this season, according to Duke’s news release.

The Aggies finished the 2021 regular season ranked 23rd in the AP Top 25 Poll and with an 8-4 record. They were the only team to defeat No. 1 Alabama this season.

Elko brings a wide variety of football knowledge to Duke, having coached teams ranging from the Ivy League to the Southeastern Conference. But the experience that might be most valuable to him now, as he takes the reins of the Blue Devils, is his time as a defensive coordinator at Wake Forest from 2014 to 2016. The hurdles at Duke will be similar to the ones at Wake; Elko will have to recruit players capable of excelling not only on the football field in the ACC, but in the classroom at an exclusive private university.

“We look forward to his leadership and vision on the field and his commitment to the highest standards of academic success,” Duke President Vincent E. Price said in a statement.

Duke is hoping that Elko can succeed in recruiting and improving its defensive schemes. As they limped to a 3-9 record, the Blue Devils gave up 39.8 points per-game this season, which was the fourth-worst mark in all of the football bowl subdivision.

From 2013 through 2018 under Cutcliffe, Duke averaged 7.6 wins per-season. The last three seasons have been rough though, as the Blue Devils have gone a combined 10-25 overall and 4-22 in ACC play. Elko inherits a team that hasn’t had a winning record in conference play since 2014.

King officially became Duke’s athletic director on Sept. 1. She’s the first Black woman to hold the position at Duke, and just the third in any power conference in college athletics. This is her first major hire for the Blue Devils.

In the span of three years, Duke will have made coaching changes in three notable sports. In 2020, Kara Lawson replaced Joanne P. McCallie as the women’s basketball coach. This past summer, Mike Krzyzewski announced that this season would be his last and that Jon Scheyer would succeed him. And now, Elko is arriving following Cutcliffe’s exit.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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