With Elko leaving Duke, focus is on ensuring momentum doesn't go, too

Michael Perchick Image
Monday, November 27, 2023
With Elko leaving Duke, focus is on ensuring momentum doesn't go, too
The search for the next Duke football coach is "well underway."

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Following a whirlwind 24 hours, Texas A&M officially hired Mike Elko as its new head coach, bringing him back to College Station following a successful tenure at Duke.

"He worked tirelessly in his two seasons to truly elevate our Duke football program, so we are really appreciative of Mike and the work that he did here," said Duke Athletics Director Nina King during prepared statements Monday afternoon.

Elko previously served as defensive coordinator for the Aggies prior to accepting the head coaching job at Duke in December 2021.

When Elko arrived in Durham, the Blue Devils had three straight losing seasons, including going winless in conference play in the 2021 season. It coincided with a notable dip in attendance at Wallace Wade Stadium, as Duke's home games averaged slightly more than 15,000 fans during the 2021 season.

"When (the class of 2026) got to campus for their freshman orientation, (Elko) gave them all customized class of 2026 Duke football jerseys with all of their names on the back. So just trying, as soon as they step on campus, telling them this football program is something that you should be excited about," said Rachael Kaplan, Sports Managing Editor of The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper.

WATCH: Duke AD Nina King speaks on changes for Duke football

Duke AD Nina King speaks on the football program and the departure of head coach Mike Elko.

Eventually, a similar gesture was offered to the rest of the student body, part of an overall effort to increase attendance. More importantly, the team's on-field performance dramatically improved, as the Blue Devils finished the 2022 season with a 9-4 record. Elko became the first Duke coach to win a bowl game in his first season while setting the program record for most wins in a first year.

All of that led to a dramatic shift in the program's perception, with attendance increasing by more than 50%.

The momentum of 2022 carried into 2023 when Duke started off its season with a nationally televised win at home over No. 9 Clemson on Labor Day.

"From last year to this year, there's been a massive jump (in interest). I think part of that, when the freshman class came in and they were excited about it, and then this year's freshman class shared a lot of that. Now you have this really dominant presence on-campus in the undergraduate population that is really passionate about this football team, and is going to games, and watching games, and keeping up with the team," Kaplan said.

Weeks later, ESPN's College GameDay broadcast from campus for the first time in its history ahead of Duke's nationally televised game against Notre Dame.

"When College GameDay came to campus, it felt like a basketball game. It felt like a big ACC basketball game in Cameron and it was really insane to see that amount of passion and that amount of dedication coming from the student body," said Kaplan.

According to the Durham Sports Commission, College GameDay had a $4 million economic impact on the city, part of an overall boost in crowds that businesses experienced throughout the season.

"Duke being better at football has definitely brought more people in for Duke football, whether they're traveling from another university or just here from Duke, which is awesome because I love busy football Saturdays," said Dain Phelan, owner of Dain's Place.

"We've actually experienced a lot more people inquiring if we're going to have the game on and of course, if Duke's playing, we got them on TV, and we have opposing fans come in all the time," added Joel Miles, co-owner of Flying Bull Beer Company.

The Blue Devils finished the regular season with a 7-5 record, qualifying for a bowl game for the second consecutive year; Elko became the first Duke coach to make a bowl game in his first two seasons. Average attendance increased again, topping more than 25,000 fans per game.

Following Jimbo Fisher's firing at Texas A&M, Elko's name was connected with the job opening.

"We definitely kind of knew it was going to come at some point, and now is time and the right job for him," said Kaplan.

As a private school, contract details for Duke coaches are not made publicly available. That's not the case at Texas A&M, whose athletic spending trumps most departments across the country. Earlier this month, Texas A&M announced it had fired Fisher, paying him $76 million as part of a record buyout.

"Mike and I had great conversations including into the late hours of last night relative to the investment, the growth, and the support of this university and this administration to the Duke football program," said King, referring to efforts to keep Elko in Durham.

The focus for King is maintaining and building upon the success of the last couple of seasons. Elko is the first Duke head football coach to leave the school on his own since Steve Spurrier in 1989. Following Spurrier's departure, Duke had just one winning season in 23 years.

While the Duke job has several inherent challenges, the administration has historically shown great patience. Besides Elko and Spurrier, every coach has been given at least four seasons.

"For Elko to have come in and started winning as immediately as he did, it's kind of set a standard. There may be some regression in year one with the new head coach, but there can't really be a whole lot of regression because there's really no excuses for that," said Kaplan.

Despite the dip in results during the end of David Cutcliffe's tenure, he led the program to six bowl games in seven seasons between 2012-2018, including an ACC Championship Game appearance. Though the landscape of college football has dramatically changed with conference realignment and NIL, Cutcliffe's run shows sustained success at Duke is achievable.

King met with the team and coaches Monday morning and is set to hold a Zoom on Monday evening with verbally committed recruits to discuss the program's future plans.

"Our national search for our next Duke football coach is well underway," said King.

Trooper Taylor, who served under both Cutcliffe and Elko, will take over as interim coach for the team's upcoming bowl game, which has not yet been announced.