It’s official: Mike Elko is the ACC Coach of the Year.
Duke’s first-year head coach was announced as the winner of the award Thursday afternoon after leading the Blue Devils to finish 8-4 overall and 5-3 in conference play. After a two-year 5-18 stretch for Duke, Elko’s success in his debut season stands among the most significant turnarounds in program history.
Elko was the runaway winner of the award, garnering 44 of 65 votes. Florida State head coach Mike Norvell finished second with 18 votes, while Georgia Tech's Brent Key, North Carolina's Mack Brown and Clemson's Dabo Swinney earned one vote each.
"I think [our season] shows what culture and belief can do to get you guys in a rhythm," Elko said on ACC Network after Thursday's announcement. "[Our] kids bought into everything we wanted to be about, obviously the staff did a great job of implementing the plan and our kids just went out and they executed. And I think with each week, we got a little bit better, and every time we went out there and played, I think we grew in confidence."
Elko assumed the top job at Duke after 23 years of coaching, the last four coming as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Less than one year after taking over for longtime head coach David Cutcliffe at the head of the program in December 2021, the 45-year-old Elko has returned Duke to relevancy in the ACC and to bowl eligibility for the first time since 2018.
After going 3-9 (0-8 in the ACC) in 2021 and winning one total game in conference play across the previous two seasons, Duke was forecasted to finish last in the ACC Coastal Division in July’s preseason poll. Elko and company instead tied for second in the division, falling just one game short of crosstown rival North Carolina for a berth in Sunday’s conference championship game against Clemson.
"Coach Elko's impact is kind of hard to describe in such a short amount of time," redshirt junior captain DeWayne Carter said in a team release Thursday. "He came in from day one and laid out the blueprint for success. From conditioning to strength to nutrition, just everything. There were never any secrets. He told us straight up what we were going to do and how he wanted the program to run. And 11 months later, he's stayed consistent, and I think that's why we are successful. It's crazy the impact that he's brought because when you're someone who carries yourself the same way every single day it makes people who are underneath you and that follow you want to be better. So, that's why I think he's had a tremendous impact on why we've done so well this year. He deserves this award. He's just a player's coach."
Few Duke head coaches have seen the same level of success as Elko in year one. Fred Goldsmith is the only other first-year head coach to equal Elko’s overall and conference records, when he won 1994 ACC Coach of the Year himself after leading the Blue Devils to a 7-0 start. Duke’s five-win jump in 2022 is the largest since Goldsmith’s first season, and its five-win increase in ACC play is the largest in program history.
"The offseason was not easy," Elko said, speaking to the character of his team after Duke closed its regular season with a 34-31 win Saturday against Wake Forest. "It was designed to reinvest this program in football. And if they made it through it, I knew where we would be."
To his credit, Elko was 4-0 against other first-year head coaches, kicking off Duke’s season with a win against Temple’s Stan Drayton before handily defeating Virginia’s Tony Elliott, Miami’s Mario Cristobal and Virginia Tech’s Brent Pry. Even with the Blue Devils replacing each of their leading passer, rusher and receiver from a season ago, Duke consistently looked further along than other transitioning programs.
Elko is the first Duke head coach to be named ACC Coach of the Year since Cutcliffe in 2012 and 2013. He becomes the fifth Blue Devil to win the award, joining Bill Murray, Steve Spurrier, Goldsmith and Cutcliffe. Wallace Wade, the namesake of Wallace Wade Stadium, earned Southern Conference Coach of the Year for the Blue Devils in 1949.
At Elko’s side has been an almost entirely rehauled coaching staff, featuring offensive coordinator Kevin Johns, defensive coordinator Robb Smith and co-defensive coordinator Jess Simpson. Associate head coach Trooper Taylor is the main holdover from the final year of Cutcliffe’s tenure.
"The biggest change for me was just game day, and trying to figure out how to be effective on game day when you're not calling it," Elko said Thursday. "That was something that I think I grew into throughout the year, just understanding how to manage the game, manage the clock, try to help both sides of the ball and special teams as much I could with my football knowledge, but not overstepping and not creating things that made it harder for those guys to do their job. Because we've got some great coaches on this staff who obviously played a huge role in why we are here today."
One game remains in the Blue Devils' inaugural campaign under Elko, with the details forthcoming when bowl games are announced Sunday.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.