Mike Elko has led Duke to an sudden high-stakes desk

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DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Elko lengthy noticed a crossover in talent units between taking part in poker and coordinating defenses. Whereas in class at Penn and early in his faculty teaching profession, Elko established himself as a standout poker participant on Atlantic Metropolis journeys together with his faculty buddies and the occasional employees video games.

The identical tenets that apply to in-game play calling — instinct, anticipation and synthesizing odds — translate nicely to the poker desk. And scoring a 760 on the mathematics portion of the SAT helps with mid-game calculations.

“I realized shortly that you simply had been higher off taking part in a recreation,” Elko says with a chuckle, “that the on line casino did not care who gained.”

Elko, 45, jokes he does not have any nice poker tales as a result of he by no means had sufficient cash on his method up the teaching ladder to be concerned in excessive curler video games. He does not play a lot anymore, however three video games into his head teaching profession, he is led Duke to an sudden high-stakes desk.

For Elko, a profession constructed partially on anticipating what’s coming has helped ship a matchup nobody may have projected as one of many buzzy video games the weekend when Duke (3-0) heads to Kansas (3-0). The 2 conventional basketball powers are sharing an unlikely highlight.

Duke and Kansas have been energized by new staffs, as Elko and second-year Kansas coach Lance Leipold have delivered shock power jolts to conventional soccer afterthoughts. Think about it the inside-straight of sudden matchups.

Duke’s eye-opening begin below Elko features a residence shutout of Temple within the opener and a 31-23 win at Northwestern as a 9.5-point underdog. Nobody is sending PDFs of Duke’s resume to the Faculty Soccer Playoff, however already matching final season’s win whole has given this system an adrenaline shot of relevancy and optimism.

For Elko, a profession spent hopscotching via stops like Stony Brook, United States Service provider Marine Academy and Hofstra has cast an appreciation each for the chance to be a Energy 5 coach and the ingenuity that matches the problem at Duke.

“I needed to discover ways to maximize each inch of the roster,” Elko mentioned. “And I believe that is crafted me into making an attempt to run a program the place you may overachieve, the place you may maximize what you are able to turning into versus beginning with an elite expertise.”

From overhauling Duke’s weight program to a bodily overhaul of the soccer places of work, there hasn’t been a lot time for Elko to veer from his poker face since arriving in December. The Blue Devils’ 0-8 ACC run final season below David Cutcliffe included losses by a median of greater than 31.7 factors per recreation.

As Elko elevated from Ivy League participant to small-college coach to the coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, his rise has been accompanied by hallmarks that embrace uncommon play-calling capacity, elite educating aptitude and the flexibility to foster defiant perception amongst his gamers.

Duke athletic director Nina King, who employed Elko, factors out that Duke gained the ACC Coastal division as not too long ago as 2013, however the faculty “struggled with the way to keep up on the high.” And that leaves Elko dealing with the twin problem of architecting a rebuild whereas establishing the inspiration for sustainable success.

Elko has already earned a key advocate in former Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who lauded him for an “old style fashion” that options “no catchy phrases.” Coach Ok appreciates that Elko isn’t a “social media big.”

Krzyzewski additionally acknowledged the significance of Duke soccer at this inflection level for school athletics. Duke does not should be Ohio State or Alabama on the gridiron, however wholesome soccer is crucial for the athletic division and future amid the unsure panorama.

“I believe it is actually necessary for this soccer coach to see success,” Krzyzewski instructed ESPN. “I believe many individuals round him are hoping for achievement. They do not essentially see it. They need it. He sees it, and he sees the highway he has to journey to get it.”

That roadmap comes from a path the place Elko instilled sufficient perception in gamers, coaches and directors that nobody thinks he is bluffing when he talks about returning Duke to ACC competition.


ELKO GREW UP in a trailer park in South Brunswick, New Jersey, which positioned him between Rutgers and Princeton on the collegiate map.

Elko’s mom had him when she was 16, and she or he and his father each dropped out of highschool to take care of him. Elko’s mom labored for the Put up Workplace and his dad for Amtrak, humble beginnings in comparison with a few of his classmates at Penn, however Elko stresses he had every part he wanted.

The tight confines at residence led to Elko turning into a gymnasium rat. And the trailer backed as much as a park the place he’d play basketball, stickball and soccer with children within the neighborhood. That outlet cast a ardour for sports activities.

“I do not wanna make it sound like we had been dust poor,” Elko mentioned. “We weren’t. I grew up in a city, and everybody within the city had what that they had.”

Elko emerged as a adequate athlete to play at Penn, the place he hung out at security, emerged as a particular groups captain and embodied most of the stereotypical traits of gamers who grow to be coaches.

Former Penn coach Al Bagnoli coached Elko there within the late Nineties and later employed him as defensive backs coach in 2000. As a participant, Elko not solely knew his obligations and people of the opposite defensive backs. He may additionally assist align the linebackers and make delicate, dwell in-game changes if gamers had been shaded the unsuitable method on particular groups.

“Now we have actually quite a lot of vibrant guys, however that does not imply they’ve nice soccer acumen, so with Mike it was a pleasant mixture,” Bagnoli mentioned. “He noticed issues via slightly totally different prism that quite a lot of guys could not at that age.”

Maybe a greater predictor of Elko’s teaching ascent was his capacity to maneuver seamlessly inside teams of the staff. Bagnoli mentioned the vary of an Ivy League staff spans children whose dad and mom come to video games on non-public jets to those that come from “just about nothing.”

“Mike discovered fairly early that he may get together with everybody,” Bagnoli mentioned. “That serves you fairly nicely, particularly while you’re making an attempt to recruit children.”

Elko is fast to level out his path in teaching did not get off to as fast a begin as Duke did this 12 months. In his first recreation as a coordinator at Service provider Marine Academy in 2001, simply three years out of school, he did not precisely depart any educating tape on the sector. They trailed 42-0 at halftime, and Elko thought he might get fired within the locker room earlier than the third quarter.

Elko saved his job, known as a shutout the following week and started forging a method that allowed him to mix his capacity to assume, join and channel a couple of of the identical abilities he realized on the poker desk.

“You are making an attempt to get into the top of the individual that’s calling performs towards you,” Elko mentioned. “You are making an attempt to assume forward to what he could be pondering. It is a very analytical method.”


FORMER WAKE FOREST defensive again Thomas Brown delivers a model of a narrative of Elko’s play calling wizard that is popped up over time throughout his practically 20 years as a school coordinator.

Brown remembers a 2015 recreation at Syracuse his junior 12 months when all week Elko had excessive confidence in a third-down blitz. He knew if the Mike linebacker blitzed and received picked up by the operating again, Brown would sail in untouched from security. He was so positive of the end result, he made Brown promise to level to the press field to provide him props for the decision when it labored.

Certain sufficient, on the primary possession, Brown sailed via untouched — “the outlet parted just like the crimson sea” — and delivered an enormous hit. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey barely had time to launch the ball, which fell incomplete. Brown celebrated together with his teammates because the punt unit got here on the sector.

When Brown returned to the sideline, he received phrase Elko needed him on the top set. Brown felt like he was being known as to the principal’s workplace, saying to himself, “I will need to have lined up unsuitable.”

As a substitute, Elko let loose a hearty chuckle: “You son of a gun,” Elko blurted out, “the place was my level?”

This has performed out on totally different headsets and sidelines throughout the MAC, ACC and SEC over time. Elko labored for Dave Clawson for 15 years at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Inexperienced and Wake Forest, and he confirmed a knack for creating free runs on the quarterback “Mike received extra folks unblocked to the quarterback than anyone I’ve ever been round,” he mentioned, including that Elko was a “savant” in diagnosing and anticipating what opposing coordinators will do.

Clawson instructed the same story to Brown. When a Bowling Inexperienced linebacker named D.J. Lynch ran in untouched on a blitz and delivered a crunching sack towards Kent State, he celebrated elaborately on the sector. Clawson recollects Elko chewing him out on the top set, as he not solely did not level to the press field to say thanks for the free path to the quarterback, he did not full the play. “Mike was mad that the child simply sacked the man,” Clawson mentioned. “He may’ve strip-sacked him.”

Watch the sport movie of Elko’s stops at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson, and it is stuffed with fast gestures of gamers nodding to Elko’s schematic creativity. There’s salutes, bows and arrows and factors as much as Elko within the press field from gamers thriving on the unimpeded paths their coach drew up.

“If the scheme will get you free, it needs to be a salute or a bow-and-arrow to the press field,” Elko mentioned, stressing the undercurrent of busting chops that got here with this rule. “It should not be this, ‘Oh my gosh, have a look at me’ celebration as a result of for those who get one-on-one and also you beat a block and also you sack the quarterback, positive, then you are able to do no matter you need. It was at all times with levity, but it surely’s humorous.”


THE SERIES OF SALUTES provide an excellent window in each Elko’s persona and what makes him profitable. Elko’s day by day demeanor is a mirrored image the Northeast fashion of constructing relationships via busting chops and trafficking in sarcasm. Bagnoli, his outdated faculty coach who’s now head coach at Columbia, jokes that there is a “crustiness” that “you solely perceive for those who develop up on this space.”

However that is paired with a relatability that former gamers rave about. Brown remembers Elko teasing him about his favourite boxer, Floyd Mayweather, questioning the fighter’s credentials. A part of Elko’s Notre Dame legacy is the amount of the rap music he listened to get fired up for video games. Former Wake Forest security Jessie Bates III mentioned Elko having a son, Michael, who’s a freshman baseball participant at Northwestern, saved him in tune with what makes gamers from the youthful era tick.

That is additionally the facet of Elko gamers gravitate towards. He is as aggressive and demanding as he’s keen to offer them the instruments, schemes and information to succeed.

Bates jokes he was an undersized security who was 170 kilos soaking moist when Elko flipped him from Toledo, the place he was dedicated to Matt Campbell. He appreciated Elko’s insistence he keep engaged throughout a redshirt season.

“There’s a typical that he places on everybody,” Bates mentioned. “Not simply the perfect gamers however each participant.”

Bates ultimately emerged as a kind of nice gamers, and he is now a star with the Cincinnati Bengals who made quite a few massive performs on their run to the Tremendous Bowl final 12 months. Bates credit the extent of element in Elko’s conferences and his capacity to show concisely with serving to form his soccer profession. Bates declared for the NFL draft after redshirting and taking part in simply two seasons at Wake Forest. He thanks Elko and former Wake assistant Lyle Hemphill, now the safeties coach at Duke, for getting ready him mentally.

“My soccer IQ is one thing coaches rave about me,” Bates mentioned. “I simply thank God for Coach Elko. He helped me tremendously. I give all of the credit score to him.”

Bates joked that “lil ole Wake Forest” emerged as one of many nation’s high defenses due to Elko’s reward. Elko labored 18 years as a defensive coordinator, however he made his mark at Wake Forest when in 2016 the Demon Deacons had a Prime 20 protection in practically each main class. That led to his hiring at Notre Dame, the place he arrived after Brian Kelly’s 4-8 season in 2016 and helped lead a turnaround to 10-3 in 2017.

A number of months after Notre Dame employed Elko, athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat in on certainly one of Elko’s conferences in summer season camp and left impressed at his capacity to synthesize and convey sophisticated ideas merely and effectively.

“He is an important instructor. He mentioned, ‘This assembly will final quarter-hour — it’s going to by no means last more than that,” Swarbrick mentioned, including that he received each level throughout in that time-frame. “On a person foundation, serving to his gamers perceive what they’re doing and why, it is actually a present.”


FROM KING’S POINT, the house of the Service provider Marine Academy, to his final cease in Faculty Station earlier than coming to Duke, Elko’s 18 years coordinating has been marked by a linear rise and constant success. That included the No. 3 protection within the nation final 12 months, which helped propel him into Energy 5 job searches.

As he is pushed forward, Elko hasn’t taken a lot time to replicate. He did break character for a second in his workplace not too long ago when reflecting again on the second he knew he’d made it as a head coach again in December.

“Shaking Coach Ok’s hand at middle court docket of Cameron, I am going to always remember that,” Elko mentioned. “Wow. This can be a fairly cool deal that we launched into.”

For Duke to return to ACC competition and make constant bowl appearances, Elko will channel the blueprint laid down by Wake Forest.

He factors out the irony of arriving Duke the 12 months after Wake reached the ACC title recreation. He arrived at Wake Forest with Clawson the 12 months after Duke performed for the ACC title below Cutcliffe in 2013.

“Once we received to Wake, we put our eyes on Duke and went after them, proper?” Elko mentioned in his workplace early this summer season. “We clearly caught them and handed them …

“Now I am at Duke, them and we’re saying, ‘That is the mannequin.’ Now we have to have the ability to go after that. It can take time. It will not occur in a single day.”

The early constructing blocks have proven Elko pointing to the longer term. He impressed King by focusing his contract negotiations on securing sources to rent a greater employees as a substitute of his personal compensation. Elko mentioned he is been capable of inform recruits that Duke might not but have the fanciest amenities or sprawling fan base, however they’ve “the identical high quality of individuals” and “employees infrastructure” on a mannequin constructed within the mould of what he skilled at Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Thus far, there’s greater than 10 full-time positions, together with doubling the dimensions of the recruiting division and a full-time devoted soccer nutritionist. This system appears to be like bodily totally different on the sector, as Duke’s COVID-19 associated restrictions restricted how a lot the staff may work out collectively.

“Clearly, we would have liked to place mass on,” Elko mentioned. “It was essentially the most obvious factor after I took over.”

King identified that one of many early relationships Elko courted was with Duke’s admissions director. It wasn’t to attempt to change admission requirements, however extra to grasp the method and work effectively, understanding potential variations in requirements from his time at Notre Dame and Wake Forest.

It is an instance of Elko being dialed in on what Duke might be; he sees Duke’s nationwide model as one of many greatest property in constructing this system again towards ACC competition. For the longer term to unfold at Duke the way in which Elko senses and anticipates, Duke’s core values are a strategic benefit.

“Is it solvable? Sure,” Elko mentioned. “After I got here into league in 2014, Duke was on the pinnacle of what it was able to. They had been coming off of an ACC championship look and had a number of NFL draft picks operating round. It wasn’t like, it was only a bunch of try-hard children. They’d NFL gamers which can be nonetheless taking part in within the NFL on that staff. I believe you are able to constructing that right here.”

In a profession constructed on sensing, anticipating and analyzing what’s subsequent, Elko has already proven flashes of how he’ll play his playing cards.

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