We probably should have seen that one coming.
The signs were there. Given his history and track record, former head coach Mike Elko was probably destined for a big-time SEC school at some point in his career. And he eventually made the jump, courtesy of his background as Texas A&M’s defensive coordinator before his two-year stint at Duke.
But the cutting-of-ties wasn’t clean, nor will it be anytime soon.
From his hiring, when he said that “now is the time for Duke football,” Elko was supposed to be the guy to bring the Blue Devils into national prominence. He was going to take this team to the promised land. It was his program to build. And he saw remarkable success, taking a team with five combined wins the two seasons prior into a unit with an aggregate 16-9 record by the time he left. He convinced what has been a historically dejected and inconsistent group of fans to show up to games, and even coached Duke to a top-10 win that, in a remarkable turn of events, caused a field-storming in Durham for the first time in a decade.
But he nonetheless decided to leave, and leaves a complicated question behind him.
For what it’s worth, the Blue Devils have been in a similar position before. Steve Spurrier left this group in the late 1980s for another high-powered, well-resourced SEC team (Florida). But the real situation is much colder. Elko came to Durham with lofty ambitions. He wanted to turn Duke into a bona-fide, genuine “football school.” He seemed genuinely interested in investing time and recruiting resources into making the program his own. But there were roadblocks.
First was student attendance. Elko started working to improve it. He moved the student section to a better spot behind the opposing benches, organized the distribution of custom-printed jerseys for every member of the incoming Class of 2026 and started giving away envelopes full of cash to random students wearing the kits at games. Attendance climbed, at least among students.
But local turnout was still relatively weak. Such is the nature of being the smallest of the three ACC football programs in the Triangle. N.C. State and North Carolina are simply more established, partially by nature of being state schools, and have endured more historical success than the Blue Devils.
The reality is, locals don’t come to Duke games in as large a quantity as they do to watch the Tar Heels or Wolfpack. Other, bigger schools can fill their stadiums with community members and alumni when the students are out of town. They have popular support from the local population, driving the team game-in and game-out, while Wallace Wade Stadium sits largely empty during fall break and the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Additionally, Blue Devil booster clubs don’t pull in the type of revenue that allows a school like Texas A&M to pay former head coach Jimbo Fisher more than $76 million to leave, let alone offer Elko $42 million guaranteed plus incentives, despite extending his contract earlier this summer.
Ultimately, there are a few problems that sit at the core of Duke’s gridiron struggles which will require a long time to fix. The Blue Devils do not historically have the public support, student body size or alumni funding to really build out a true powerhouse program. Elko surmised as much in just under two years of trying.
Reflecting on the end of the short-lived but exciting “Elko Era,” I am reminded of a quote from famed filmmaker and writer Orson Welles:
“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”
It was fun while it lasted. Odds are, there will be successful years ahead. Other exciting new coaches will drop by, some perhaps on their way to bigger schools and others for more extended stretches. Duke might even produce a few NFL Draft picks. But when the dust settles, there will still be those historical, maybe insurmountable, barriers that prevent Blue Devil football from becoming a national brand. Duke’s quest is made even tougher by conference realignment — especially as the SEC and Big Ten are on their way to dominate what remains of the college football landscape and are absorbing all the top coaching talent in the process. The ACC, despite adding three new members this fall, is in limbo about broadcast deals and is still dealing with the known discontent between it and its two best football schools: Florida State and Clemson.
As you can probably tell, I’m not optimistic for Duke’s future, and will be keeping my expectations low. But there were moments in relatively upbeat years like these last two that are worth remembering and celebrating when they periodically roll around. I’ll never forget running onto Brooks Field after beating Clemson, and will cherish the moment when this team eventually manages to escape with a win against North Carolina after two years of late-game defeats.
As a student and a writer, I enjoyed watching Elko coach here in Durham, and the hope was a pleasant change of pace from years of watching Duke struggle. So while his departure is understandable given the program’s constraints, its effects will, for better or worse, be felt for years to come.
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