'Remarkable football mind': Why Duke thinks new coach Mike Elko is the right fit
Ja’Mion Franklin was sold on Mike Elko the day that he met him.
Back in December 2017, Franklin – now a defensive tackle for the Duke Blue Devils – was a three-star prospect out of North Caroline High School on Maryland’s Eastern Shore who had racked up scholarship offers from dozens of big-time programs.
Franklin had verbally committed to Notre Dame a few months earlier, but to close the deal with him ahead of national signing day, Elko – then the defensive coordinator for the Fighting Irish – traveled to Franklin’s hometown of Ridgely, Maryland; a population of less than 2,000 people. Over plates of hot wings at a nearby pub, Franklin got to know the kind of man that Elko is, on and off the field.
“His family is his world. A lot of decisions that he makes involve his family and are for his family. I can really relate to that,” Franklin told WUNC about the 44-year-old coach, husband and father of three. “He’s a very relatable guy. He’s very approachable… When I say he was the reason I went to Notre Dame, he was the reason. After that meeting with him, I was signed, sealed and delivered.”
Franklin never got the chance to play for Elko. Less than a month after Franklin signed his national letter of intent to Notre Dame, Elko left to be the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M – for a reported salary of $2.1 million. Franklin says he was shocked, but he understood the decision. College football is, after all, a billion-dollar industry.
“You don’t turn that [money] down,” Franklin said. “It’s not really a secure business. So, you got to take those opportunities when you get them.”
After building successful defenses in the Southeastern Conference at Texas A&M for the past four seasons, Elko was presented with a new opportunity several weeks ago: The Duke Blue Devils needed a new head football coach after parting ways with David Cutcliffe after 14 years.
In less than two weeks, a national search committee – spearheaded by Duke Vice President and Athletic Director Nina King, Senior Associate Director of Athletics Art Chase, and Daniel Parker of Parker Executive Search – zeroed in on Elko as the top candidate for the job.
On Dec. 13, on a raised platform above the turf inside Pascal Field House – in the shadow of Duke’s historic Wallace Wade Stadium – Elko was introduced as the 22nd football coach in Blue Devils history.
“We need to spread the word that Duke football now stands for excellence nationwide. The vision I have for this program is that we will achieve the highest levels of success in everything we do,” Elko said. “And we will win championships on the field in the fall.
“I want to make sure we say that again – we will win championships on the field in the fall.”
In his opening press conference, Elko was confident and declarative. And, judging from the cheers and applause he garnered when he spoke, the players, alumni and fans in attendance seem to believe in him. Among them was Ja’Mion Franklin, who transferred to Duke last year.
The 6-foot-1 junior has one year of eligibility left in his college football playing days, and now he’ll finally get the chance to play for Elko – the man he committed to some four years ago.
Before the hire was publicly announced, Franklin got a text message on his phone for an emergency team meeting over Zoom. When he entered the virtual chat, he glanced down and saw Elko’s name. He was elated, to say the least.
“As a defensive player, you're really excited when you get a guy like that. Everywhere he’s been, he’s had success on defense,” Franklin said. “Especially after the tough season we just had, I think that you’d be a fool to not get excited about a guy like him being here. Because you know whoever he brings in is going to be just as smart as him. He's not settling for less.”
Who is Mike Elko?
On the surface, Duke hiring Mike Elko makes it look like the Blue Devils are leaning into blue-collar, defensive-minded football. But they’re also hiring a man with an Ivy League degree, extensive experience of coaching at schools similar to Duke – like Wake Forest – and someone who has aspirations for the team that are above average.
“He’s an old-school, hard-nosed football coach, man,” Franklin said. “There’s not going to be any more soft stuff.”
Elko’s approach to sports and academia blossomed in South Brunswick, New Jersey, where he played basketball and baseball, and was the quarterback for his high school’s football team. A standout student, Elko went on to get an Ivy League education at University of Pennsylvania, where he also played safety for the Quakers’ defense. In his senior season in 1998, Penn won the Ivy League Championship.
Elko remained on the field the following season, beginning what is now a 23-year career in coaching college football at Stony Brook University as a graduate assistant and inside linebackers coach. He continued to cut his teeth in the northeast, coaching at institutions like his alma mater Penn, the Division III Merchant Marine Academy, Fordham University and Hofstra University.
Perhaps the most crucial two seasons in Elko’s first decade as a coach were 2002 and 2003. That’s when he was a co-defensive coordinator for the Fordham Rams. Then-Rams head coach Dave Clawson was one of the first people Elko thanked during his introductory press conference at Duke.
“Your mentorship and your friendship Dave, has meant the world to me,” Elko said. “And I'm not on this podium without you.”
Clawson is now the head coach at Wake Forest, finishing up his eighth season on the job in Winston-Salem. As Clawson climbed the coaching ranks to finally get a head coaching position in the ACC, he often brought Elko along with him – first at Fordham, then at Richmond and Bowling Green, and finally at Wake Forest, where Elko was the Demon Deacons’ defensive coordinator from 2014 to 2016. In all, Elko spent 12 seasons coaching under Clawson.
Now, Elko will be tasked with trying to best his mentor.
Success in football
When Clawson was brought in to overhaul Wake Forest’s football program in 2013, Elko came in alongside him to reshape the Deacs’ defense.
Then entering his junior season as a Wake Forest linebacker, Brandon Chubb recalled being skeptical at first of Elko’s plans. In changing the defensive scheme to a 4-2-5, Elko reduced the number of linebackers on the field to two. Chubb thought his skills were best utilized in the former scheme, a 3-4.
“I was a little upset with that and had some doubts in my productivity from that position,” Chubb told WUNC.
But in the first game of the Clawson-Elko era at Wake, the Demon Deacons went down to Louisiana Monroe and held their opponent to just 17 points. The Deacs lost as the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, but Chubb finished the game with a career-high 18 tackles. Right away, he was successful in Elko’s system and believed in the changes.
“Once you bought-in, it was like playing chess in that defense with Elko,” said Chubb, who now works for the NFL Players Association. “Week in and week out, we could compete with the Louisvilles, the Florida States and Notre Dames… We could hold these teams of four- or five-star guys talent wise on the offensive side of the ball.”
By Elko’s third season as Wake’s defensive coordinator, the Deacs had one of the top defenses in the country. Wake finished the 2016 season with a winning record, 7-6, and won the Military Bowl.
At this point, other coaches around the country were beginning to notice Elko’s defensive expertise. Soon after Wake won its bowl game, Elko was hired as the defensive coordinator at Notre Dame. In his lone season in South Bend, Indiana, the Irish went 10-3, with a defense that was eighth-best in rushing touchdowns allowed per-game.
Again, in 2018, Elko was lured away to a higher bidder – this time to Texas A&M. The Aggies have won at least eight games each season since Elko’s hire. This past year, they were the only team to deal a loss to No. 1 Alabama.
By the time he was in talks with Duke, Elko had spent 18 of his 23 seasons in college football as a defensive coordinator. He’d never been a head coach, but interviewed for openings in recent years at Temple University and the University of Kansas.
“He has a remarkable football mind,” said Nina King, Duke’s director of athletics. “I talked to a lot of people around the country about Mike and, to a tee, everyone enthusiastically talked about his intelligence and football acumen, as well as his ability to relate to student athletes and prospects.”
Over its last two seasons, Duke has lost 17 of its 18 ACC games. The Blue Devils haven’t finished with a winning record in league play since 2014.
Even before Duke parted ways with David Cutcliffe, the players could sense that a change in head coach might be on the horizon.
“A lot of people weren’t happy. It’s like a distraction,” Duke defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin told WUNC. “You really want to just stay focused and play it out, but you know, you'd be a fool to not think that something was going to change.”
The roughly two-week period that King spent searching for Duke’s next football coach included a lot of long nights. She joked that she often ate Peanut M&M’s for dinner as she combed through CVs and conducted interviews with the help of Duke’s Art Chase and Daniel Parker – who runs his own search firm. King even spoke with a small committee of about seven players to get an idea of what they wanted in their next coach.
It was Elko’s resume that wound up standing out amongst the rest of the candidates Duke was considering, a group that also included – according to multiple reports – Army Head Coach Jeff Monken, former New York Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and former Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott – who wound up being hired as the head coach at Virginia.
Elko’s background was different among the rest in several ways. He’s a defensive-minded coach, unlike his predecessor Cutcliffe, and he has extensive experience in coaching at and recruiting players to elite-academic and private institutions.
“He brings with him a keen understanding of how athletics can support the identity and campus life of a complex research institution,” Duke President Vincent D. Price said. “And perhaps most importantly, he brings with him an unwavering commitment to the academic and the personal success of his student athletes.”
Of the 10 schools Elko coached at before coming to Duke, seven of them are private. In his career, Elko has not had the luxury of being able to recruit a player who might have five-star football talent, but only a 2.0 GPA in the classroom. He’s been at schools where the admissions requirements aren’t easy.
Duke is no different. Elko will be expected to bring in players who can succeed on the gridiron and in their studies. King said that experience was a significant factor in her recruitment decision.
“What he’s done in the places he’s done them was really attractive, on paper,” King said.
Brandon Chubb, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons linebacker and current player director for the NFL Players Association, is someone who sees the hurdles that Dave Clawson encountered at Wake being akin to the ones Elko might face at Duke.
“I believe that he understands the challenges that come with being at a rigorous academic institution with a smaller student body,” Chubb said. “You're not going to get everybody in the transfer portal because, you know, 70% of (most) colleges’ credits don’t transfer to a Wake Forest or a Duke, right?”
Getting the ‘Crazies’ on board
But just because Elko worked at Notre Dame and Wake Forest doesn’t mean he automatically has the blueprint for success at Duke. Indeed, his experience is important, but to turn Duke into a winner on the field is going to take much more than being able to identify high schoolers who are smart and good at football.
“Clawson – he says this all the time – when he first came to Wake, in his eyes, you could tell football wasn’t important,” Chubb said. “So, what does a recruit see? A recruit sees that football isn’t as important because of the facilities and the infrastructure that they had at the time.”
As of October, Wake had raised $30 million for a football complex that includes a player lounge with a nutrition station, recovery area and entertainment area, among other amenities. That investment has come as Clawson has turned Wake Forest into a winning football team. The Deacs went 10-3 this season and appeared in the ACC Championship game.
King said Duke is committed to increasing the quality of its facilities and amenities, but it's going to take “significant philanthropic support” to accomplish some of the larger goals like higher pay for assistant coaches and garnering more community support for the team
“We know that we need to renovate. It’s on the radar, it’s on the wish list, and it always has been – frankly,” King said. “We're going to hit the ground and eat a lot of chicken dinners with donors and get some folks to help us out there.”
During his opening press conference, Elko called on Duke’s alumni to support the program. And he told former players that his door was always open.
And then he called on the residents of Durham and Duke’s student body to back Duke football too.
“Bull City – we are your team. We need your support,” Elko said. “We need you to help fill this stadium on Saturdays in the fall. We need to create the best on-field atmosphere in the ACC.”
Elko visited Cameron Indoor Stadium on Dec. 14 to plead his case in-person to the Cameron Crazies.
As Duke’s basketball team – ranked No. 2 in the AP Top 25 Poll this season – was beating the brakes off of South Carolina State, Elko was introduced to the crowd during a timeout in the first half. When Elko was finished speaking, men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski – the most revered figure in all of Duke athletics – left his team’s huddle to shake Elko’s hand and give him a hug.
“It was a big hug, because he’s a big guy,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, we’ll work with him and do whatever we can to help him.”
Krzyzewski’s mid-game greeting was another example that there’s a whole lot of people associated with Duke that want this to work. They’re putting their weight and words behind Elko. And they want to see Duke win games and garner new fans on the gridiron.