Column: Under Elko, Duke football's student engagement is a key to success

Duke head coach Mike Elko addressed first-year students Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke head coach Mike Elko addressed first-year students Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

In his first time speaking in front of Duke fans, head coach Mike Elko had a mission—to convey that it was the year the Blue Devils would begin their ascent into the highest tier of collegiate football. 

Hired after a dismal winless ACC season and a three-year downslide from consistent bowl victories to the cellar of the conference, Elko has aimed to do more than just improve the on-field product. His engagement with students thus far has keyed a new era—not just within the program, but the University as a whole.

“The time is now for Duke football,” Elko proclaimed at Cameron Indoor Stadium during halftime of a February Duke–Wake Forest men’s basketball game.

There was a different air in the building when Elko took center court in February. Of course, it was a basketball game with a packed student section, but he could command the crowd with his vision for the future in ways unseen from a place that has embraced basketball while in many ways not being a “football school” of late. 

The former Texas A&M defensive coordinator immediately lit a fire with his declaration that Duke would “win championships on the field in the fall” in his introductory press conference.

On top of boldly prognosticating imminent improvements to the on-field product, Elko has made clear from his arrival that he would be taking input from student groups on campus to improve the game day experience, one which he believes benefits the culture of the University but also his players. 

“We can't be a successful football program without the community around us—without the student base around us,” Elko said at the Aug. 20 media day. 

The student base will quite literally be around the team as it runs out of the tunnel before each game. During that same halftime speech, Elko described changes to the student section that would shift the students’ area a few sections closer to the visiting bench so that it would surround the players’ entry tunnel. The Blue Devils may never claim the same kind of atmosphere as historic powerhouses before games. But here—moving the student area for the purpose of being closer to the visiting bench—could be a step in that direction.

It is worth noting that Elko arrived from Texas A&M, whose Kyle Field regularly hosts over 100,000 spectators and is one of college football's loudest arenas. "Deafening" would likely not be a Blue Devil fan's first choice of words when describing Wallace Wade Stadium.

Average home attendance has decreased in five straight non-COVID-19 seasons (excluding 2020). Attendance at games held at Wallace Wade fell over 40% between the 2019 and 2021 seasons despite the possibility of a resurgence in attendance at sporting events after Duke announced capacity limits would be removed in June 2021. The nearly 30,000 fans that filled the stands each game in 2016 fell to just more than 15,000 in 2021.

Clearly, Duke football has had an engagement issue—one that both Elko and athletic director Nina King see. Now, they are making clear to the students that they acknowledge it. One can’t ignore the fact that as the number of wins has fallen, so has the number of Blue Devil jerseys in the stands. 

Students now hardly know of the football crowds as the Wally Wade Wackos, the name meant to parallel the famous Cameron Crazies moniker. 

Elko has made small steps that may very well bring that energy back. He preached to the Class of 2026 within the first-years’ first hours on campus Saturday that Duke will return to the top of the ACC and that he wants the stands full. Never mind the fact that first-years now each possess blue home jerseys with “26” across the front and their own last names emblazoned on the backs, courtesy of Elko and the football program.

A new and improved tailgate looks to rejuvenate on-campus engagement with the team every Saturday morning. Since the 2010 cancellation of the student pregame festivities, tailgating has seemingly been a sensitive topic for the University, but putting students back in the stands has surged to the forefront. 

That February night at Cameron Indoor, Duke fans gave Elko thunderous approval for his vision for the future. This season, students will be closer to the action, closer to the team and, if all goes well, closer to the postseason. 

Just before that announcement, however, Elko stood at the free throw stripe and swished a shot for charity—nothing he said that night got the crowd as riled up as his basketball competence because at Duke, basketball is king.

Time and time again, students hear promises of a brighter tomorrow for Duke's football program, its students and its fans. But Elko’s first moves at Duke could help his program enjoy a renaissance of passion and love of the game among the Blue Devils’ long-lost supporters.

For the rest of our Duke football preseason coverage, click here.

Micah Hurewitz

Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


Share and discuss “Column: Under Elko, Duke football's student engagement is a key to success” on social media.