'The CEO of Duke football': Elko's leadership front and center as the program looks to rebrand

Head coach Mike Elko runs onto the field for one last time in 2022 before Duke's Military Bowl bout with UCF.
Head coach Mike Elko runs onto the field for one last time in 2022 before Duke's Military Bowl bout with UCF.

Moments after a trio of Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters ripped their way across a crisp December sky in Annapolis, Md. — a Military Bowl staple — head coach Mike Elko charged his Duke team onto the field for the last time in 2022, looking to close the book on a Cinderella debut season. The temperature had dipped below freezing by the time he found his proverbial glass slipper: one more season-defining win.

The Blue Devils’ 30-13 victory against UCF was the perfect cap to a remarkable season few, if any, saw coming. Players who mere months prior appeared fringe pieces of a demoralized bottom-dweller in the ACC were now hoisting Duke’s first trophy since 2018.

Elko was pleased. But he also took a moment to reiterate the message he had pedaled since he was hired to steer the Blue Devils’ broken vessel back on course: 

“This group is special, this program is special and what this university’s football team is going to be about in the future is really special.”

In 20 short months, Elko has completely re-energized the Blue Devils. Ghosts of former head coach David Cutcliffe’s final two seasons, which featured one combined conference win, have dissipated, even among the veterans who decided to stick around. The tepid hope of yesteryear has been replaced with a prevailing sense of confidence, optimism and ambition among players and fans who now see the future of Duke football as something to look forward to, not fear.

With a sweeping plan for a rebrand of the program, a brain for the schematics of football and an empathetic, no-nonsense approach to coaching, the reigning ACC Coach of the Year has earned the respect of his assistants and locker room. This is what brought the successes of 2022 and what he hopes will lay the brickwork for successes in 2023.

“Like I tell everybody I talk to about this program, we’re still a startup company,” Elko said at the team’s preseason media day. “That’s really what we are. We’re a startup company that’s just getting going. Hopefully success is linear.”

‘A more known commodity’

If success is to be linear, as Elko hopes it will be, Duke’s on-field performance is but an axle in a larger machine that includes a refurbished marketing strategy and efforts to bring more students to Wallace Wade Stadium on gameday. 

“As we try to get people more excited about Duke football and we try to make Duke football a more known commodity, we’re trying to advertise,” Elko said. “That’s a piece of what we’re trying to do.”

Since proudly proclaiming upon his hiring in December 2021 that “now is the time for Duke football,” Elko has spearheaded a comprehensive restructuring of the program and its engagement with fans to achieve this aim of making the Blue Devils a “known commodity.”

This took a variety of forms: pumping energy and resources into a vibrant tailgating culture, moving the student section, awarding cash prizes at the end of each quarter and even giving personalized jerseys to every freshman. By season’s end, a “six-figure” investment prompted by repeated asks from students brought jerseys to upperclassmen, too. This has come alongside a rejigged social media presence which added the most followers of any ACC team during the 2022 season and ranked in the top 10 for growth nationwide.

Of course, these efforts are in vain if the on-field product doesn’t improve, too. Fortunately for the Blue Devils, it has — and fast.

Elko’s new scheme, which placed an increased emphasis on physicality in defense, a run-by-committee ground game and the legs of then-sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard, worked wonders almost immediately, helping Duke to a shutout start against Temple and five ACC wins by year’s end.

“What programs need to do to continue to grow and be in the national narrative is [that their] people need to know what to expect from their program year-in and year-out,” Elko said.

Although the head coach was forced to adapt quickly to life in Durham, the secret to Duke’s turnaround may actually lie in Elko’s consistency as a coach, according to defensive coordinator Tyler Santucci, who worked with him at Texas A&M. 

When asked about how Elko has changed from his time as an assistant to now, Santucci’s response was simple: he hasn’t.

“He’s not at the head of the defensive table anymore, but he’s always had a mind for the game of football, not just defense,” Santucci said. “He understood the big picture of it, how it should work, how people should work together and when to have the temperament of the team and how to control that, how to push people through the hard moments in camp … He’s always gotten it from a big-picture standpoint.”

‘The one thing on his mind is ball’

Elko’s acute understanding of football’s tactical intricacies and ability to clearly communicate them to his players helped him accrue quite the resume as a defensive coordinator before landing Duke’s top job.

In his final season with the Aggies, he turned Texas A&M into the country’s third-best scoring defense and led it to four consecutive bowl games. He brought Notre Dame’s scoring defense, pass defense and rush defense up more than 20 points nationally in just one year. And in the last of his three seasons with Wake Forest, his unit was one of just four programs to rank in the top 20 in scoring defense, sacks and forced turnovers. The other three — Alabama, Clemson and Washington — made the College Football Playoff that year.

The Blue Devils experienced a similar renaissance under Elko in year one, finishing the season 31st in both scoring offense and scoring defense and with a plus-16 turnover margin, good for second in the country. What’s more impressive is that it was with largely the same ensemble of players as the group which went 2-9 and 3-9 the two seasons prior, turning the likes of Leonard, defensive lineman DeWayne Carter, linebacker Shaka Heyward and offensive tackle Graham Barton into some of the conference’s best in their respective positions.

“He comes into work every day, but the one thing on his mind is ball,” Carter said. “No fluff, there’s no special stuff. He loves the game of football and he loves teaching it.”

“We all understand what’s chapter two, what’s chapter three, what’s the next part of this play that can make this play successful,” said offensive coordinator Kevin Johns. “We just don’t rep things for the heck of it.”

Elko’s keen eye for details, strict restructuring of daily practices and eagerness to delegate responsibility has created a clear line of communication between coaches and players that has led to better, clearer, more effective play-calling and improved results on the field. In year two, those connections will only strengthen, Johns said.

“He sees the game a certain way and he explains it that way,” Santucci said. “And he can paint a picture so that you understand it as a player and as a coach.”

‘The best version of yourself’

To Elko, the biggest change he has experienced since landing in Durham has little to do with tactics or his overarching philosophy and more to do with adapting to the growing responsibilities of the head coaching role at a program on the rise.

“I think I’ve just gotten into a better rhythm of how to balance what I need to do football-wise with what I need to do as being the CEO of Duke football,” Elko said.

According to his assistants, it is a role he has embraced wholeheartedly.

From being a “teacher of teachers,” according to Santucci, to “as detailed as anyone I’ve met,” according to Johns, praise for Elko is high. After rewarding him with a bumper new contract that keeps him with the program until 2029, Duke evidently has faith in him, too.

“He’s never lied to us,” Carter said. “He’s very transparent, keeps it very simple. You talk about the meat and potatoes, that is him. He’s the epitome of that.”

Elko proved last year that his nuanced tactical schemes and optimism for the program is an effective and attractive combination for all involved. That extends to jersey-clad freshmen in a revitalized student section, assistant coaches working with players reborn — and, of course, to the players themselves, whose performances will ultimately be the barometer by which this season is judged.

“No matter if you’re going through a walkthrough, or you’re going out to practice and it’s one of the hottest days of the year, coach Elko will make you the best version of yourself,” Leonard said at media day.

The next question pitched at Leonard: What does getting the best out of someone mean?

He paused and smiled.

“I think it means you leave here with no regrets.”

Editor's note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle's 2023 Duke football preseason supplement. For the rest, click here.

Andrew Long profile
Andrew Long | Sports Editor

Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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