It has certainly been a hectic few days for Duke football — a set that will define the future of the program. There has been no shortage of fan reactions, and a wide variety of opinions regarding former head coach Mike Elko’s Monday departure to Texas A&M and quarterback Riley Leonard’s Wednesday entrance into the transfer portal.
The money and new opportunities in college football are a lesson that things can change extremely fast, as Duke has learned the hard way. While many empathized with Elko taking the job in College Station, Texas, for financial reasons, there was still some disapproval with the way in which he left.
“Elko’s departure was disappointing and the way he did it was infuriating,” wrote Eli Hartsoe, a Raleigh native and lifelong Duke fan, in an email to The Chronicle.
The players expressed some confusion on social media after footage emerged of Elko arriving at Texas A&M in the middle of the night. This was reflected in the fan reactions, too.
“I'm disappointed that he left, obviously, and especially how he did it,” said Geoff Heintzelman, a Duke alum and season-ticket holder since 2006. “His players being upset did not make me feel good … especially since he assured the administration that he was staying last week.”
“I get it from [the financial] perspective, but the way he did it was not terribly ethical,” said Evan Greenberg, who lived in the Triangle area throughout his childhood.
However, there has certainly been a stark contrast in the fan response to Elko’s departure versus Leonard’s. The reception to the quarterback was largely one of sincere respect, appreciating what he did for the program in the past two years, even in the face of injury issues this season.
“In the current landscape, he can make one to two million, it's hard to keep players like that,” Greenberg said. “I obviously thought he was a great ambassador for the school and a great player, and it was just unfortunate this year that he missed pretty much the whole second half of the year.”
“With Riley, it felt so different [than Elko],” said Caitlin Dougherty, a current Duke junior. “It felt like a proper goodbye, a proper ending, much more like a positive sentiment to everything. Everyone’s much more excited for him and what he's doing in the future, especially as a result of the way that he chose to thank the fans, thank the school and really acknowledge the significance of his time here.”
It’s important to put the recent negative news about the program into context, especially because there were undoubtedly some memorable moments this season. The field rush and fan energy against Clemson was a true spectacle, and with two primetime games and ESPN College GameDay’s first appearance in Duke football history, the student experience this year has in many ways been akin to that of a big-time program.
But it has been a rollercoaster of a season as well, and Duke went from being a genuine ACC title contender to a team just one win above bowl eligibility in the span of a few weeks. Nevertheless, this campaign should still be one worth remembering, and fans across the spectrum agreed that it was a success, especially amid an extensive list of injuries.
“I would still say they exceeded expectations and they didn't necessarily regress because they also had a really difficult schedule this year,” Greenberg said.
“I think it definitely was a success considering that we were playing with the third-string quarterback,” Heintzelman said. “Honestly, when I saw the schedule come out in like August, I was like ‘man, if we can go 7-5, that'd be great.’”
Similar to the players, there is a sense of optimism about the future of the program because of the on-field product exhibited during the past two seasons. This has helped create a foundation for Duke to build upon for years to come — one that transcends a single head coach or player.
“I think they built a strong enough foundation that they should be able to win six to nine games every single year,” Greenberg said.
However, it is still clear that the school has a lot to do as far as student and alumni engagement surrounding the football program go to match that of Duke men’s basketball.
“I still remain disappointed in the student and alumni support in the stadium,” Heintzelman said. “I think in order for us to make the next step and become a big-time program, we can't keep continuing to have away games at home.”
But the fact that the fans have shown so much engagement this week in the wake of Elko and Leonard’s departures, among others, illustrates that the program is trending in the right direction, and Elko’s contribution to the excitement around Duke football is undeniable. Fans have matched the opportunity this year with energy, coming out in droves to support the Blue Devils’ newfound success.
“On a Saturday, that's the thing to do,” Dougherty said. “If there's a football game, we're gonna go to the football game, whereas freshman year, that would have been nowhere close to the norm. There's so much more enthusiasm, and so many more people invested … it just feels like a completely different attitude on campus.”
Duke fans gathered on X Spaces Monday morning to discuss the future of the program and their feelings about Elko’s departure. Hosted by Brian Porras, more than 100 media members, students, alumni and Durhamites were brought together by a shared love for all things Duke football, and even though the news was not positive, this forum represented the upward shift in fan culture nonetheless.
“The fact that people are so interested in where people are transferring and what is happening to the program shows that there is an investment that was not there two years ago,” Dougherty said.
And while the next steps are uncertain, the track record of the athletic administration’s hires shows hope for a bright future among Blue Devil fans.
“I have full faith in Nina King to find a replacement as good or even better than Elko,” Hartsoe wrote. “I do not fear the future of Duke football. I eagerly await it.”
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.