This time last year, Duke was teetering perilously close to laughing-stock status after a pair of seasons with one combined win in the ACC headlined by some very, very bad losses tanked the Blue Devils’ reputation near irreparability. In one particularly bad drubbing at Virginia in October 2021, our Micah Hurewitz likened Duke’s loss to getting hit by a nuclear warhead.
Clearly change was needed, and in December 2021 the Blue Devils hired then-Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko as their new head coach. Although his work with the Aggies was eye-catching even in football’s hardest conference, the move was undoubtedly a gamble. It was a bet on Duke’s part that Elko could inject some juice into a wrecked team and begin the program’s rise back into the national conversation it had not participated in since Daniel Jones was quarterback.
Fast forward a year and half: Elko is the reigning ACC Coach of the Year, the Blue Devils are looking to build on a 9-4 season last fall and a shiny new Military Bowl trophy now sits in their cabinet. In July, Elko was rewarded for the turnaround with a bumper new contract that provides additional resources for assistant coaches and keeps the play caller in Durham through 2029.
In a vacuum, Elko’s extension is nothing more than a just reward for an incredible, if not wholly unexpected, season. But after observing the foundational changes in the college football landscape over the last few weeks, I think there’s a second, more existential reason for Duke’s renewed faith in its head coach: safeguarding itself against the choppy seas of conference realignment.
If the rapid disintegration of the Pac-12 and ensuing scramble for spots in the Big Ten and Big 12 has taught us anything, it’s that schools need to present a sporting brand that is attractive to investors if they hope to remain financially viable. Mouth-watering TV money — the Big Ten’s agreement alone is worth $7 billion over the next seven years — provides the biggest incentive to hop on the bandwagon. The Pac-12 has yet to agree a comparable TV deal to either the Big Ten or Big 12, and for it has lost two-thirds of its members to both conferences.
The upshot of this is that schools looking for a bite of the proverbial apple must have a competitive program which adds to the on-screen product to warrant their increased revenue. Schools that haven’t in recent years — California, Washington State, Stanford — have subsequently struggled to secure their places.
As one of the biggest brands in college sports, Duke knows that it can’t risk being one of those schools. It knows it needs competitive football to stay financially viable.
I believe that when athletic director Nina King hired Elko, she saw the writing on the wall that a competitive football program would only grow in necessity in the coming months and years. On the back of another non-competitive campaign in 2021, the Blue Devils needed to act fast if they wanted to be ahead of the curve in finding the right candidate to turn the program around. As soon as she saw that bet pay off — with the resources already at his disposal, no less — she locked him in for the long haul.
Bold extensions like this don’t always work — just look at the high-profile, long-term contracts given to Mario Cristobal at Miami and Jimbo Fisher at Texas A&M — but Elko has proven he’s the man for the job in Durham. He turned Riley Leonard into a superstar at quarterback, transformed a porous defense into a unit with the country’s second-best turnover margin and returned his entire receiving corps and defensive line for year two. Were it not for a missed field goal, the Blue Devils would have played in the ACC championship game last year.
Ultimately, success begets faith. Duke’s hand was forced into hiring Elko in the first place, and was forced again to hold onto him once he proved that he had the potential to be the transformational figure the program needs to become, and stay, viable.
With the likes of Florida State, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Clemson on the Blue Devils’ schedule this year and no more divisions in the ACC, Elko and his team’s task is no longer to stay above water, but to compete against the country’s best. Exactly as Duke hoped he, and it, would.
Or rather, exactly as Duke needs him to.
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Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.