DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Elko lengthy noticed a crossover in ability units between taking part in poker and coordinating defenses. While in class at Penn and early in his faculty teaching profession, Elko established himself as a standout poker participant on Atlantic City journeys along with his faculty buddies and the occasional soccer workers video games.
The identical tenets that apply to in-game play calling — instinct, anticipation and synthesizing odds — translate nicely to the poker table. And scoring a 760 on the mathematics portion of the SAT helps with midgame calculations.
“I learned quickly that you were better off playing a game,” Elko says with a chuckle, “that the casino didn’t care who won.”
Elko, 45, jokes he does not have any nice poker tales as a result of he by no means had sufficient cash on his approach up the teaching ladder to be concerned in high-roller video games. He does not play a lot anymore, however three video games into his head-coaching profession, he has led Duke to an unexpected high-stakes table.
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 two 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. Consider it the inside-straight of unexpected matchups.
Duke’s eye-opening begin underneath Elko features a dwelling shutout of Temple within the opener and a 31-23 win at Northwestern as a 9.5-point underdog. No one is sending PDFs of Duke’s resume to the College Football Playoff, however already matching final season’s win complete has given this system an adrenaline shot of relevancy and optimism.
For Elko, a profession spent hopscotching via stops like Stony Brook, United States Merchant Marine Academy and Hofstra has solid an appreciation each for the chance to be a Power 5 coach and the ingenuity that matches the problem at Duke.
“I had to learn how to maximize every inch of the roster,” Elko mentioned. “And I think that’s crafted me into trying to run a program where you can overachieve, where you can maximize what you’re capable of becoming as opposed to starting with an elite talent.”
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 underneath David Cutcliffe included losses by an common of greater than 31.7 factors.
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 skill, elite instructing aptitude and the flexibility to foster defiant perception amongst his gamers.
Duke athletic director Nina King, who employed Elko, factors out that Duke received the ACC Coastal division as just lately as 2013, however the college “struggled with how to stay up at the top.” 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-school style” that options “no catchy phrases.” Coach Ok appreciates that Elko is just not a “social media giant.”
Krzyzewski additionally acknowledged the significance of Duke soccer at this inflection level for faculty athletics. Duke does not want to be Ohio State or Alabama on the gridiron, however wholesome soccer is important for the athletic division and future amid the unsure panorama.
“I think it’s really important for this football coach to see success,” Krzyzewski advised ESPN. “I think many people around him are hoping for success. They don’t necessarily see it. They want it. He sees it, and he sees the road he has to travel 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 look after him. Elko’s mom labored for the Post Office and his dad for Amtrak, humble beginnings in contrast to a few of his classmates at Penn, however Elko stresses he had all the things he wanted.
The tight confines at dwelling led to Elko changing into a health club rat. And the trailer backed up to a park the place he’d play basketball, stickball and soccer with children within the neighborhood. That outlet solid a ardour for sports activities.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we were dirt poor,” Elko mentioned. “We weren’t. I grew up in a town, and everyone in the town had what they had.”
Elko emerged as a ok 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 turn out to be coaches.
Former Penn coach Al Bagnoli coached Elko there within the late Nineteen 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 refined, dwell in-game changes if gamers have been shaded the incorrect approach on particular groups.
“We have really a lot of bright guys, but that doesn’t mean they have great football acumen, so with Mike it was a nice combination,” Bagnoli mentioned. “He saw things through a little different prism that a lot of guys couldn’t at that age.”
Perhaps a greater predictor of Elko’s teaching ascent was his skill to transfer seamlessly inside teams of the staff. Bagnoli mentioned the vary of an Ivy League staff spans children whose mother and father come to video games on non-public jets to those that come from “virtually nothing.”
“Mike figured out pretty early that he could get along with everyone,” Bagnoli mentioned. “That serves you pretty well, especially when you’re trying to recruit kids.”
Elko is fast to level out his path in teaching did not get off to as fast a begin as Duke did this yr. In his first sport as a coordinator at Merchant Marine Academy in 2001, simply three years out of faculty, he did not precisely depart any instructing tape on the sector. They trailed 42-0 at halftime, and Elko thought he may get fired within the locker room earlier than the third quarter.
Elko saved his job, known as a shutout the subsequent week and commenced forging a method that allowed him to mix his skill to assume, join and channel a number of of the identical abilities he discovered on the poker table.
“You’re trying to get into the head of the person that’s calling plays against you,” Elko mentioned. “You’re trying to think ahead to what he might be thinking. It’s a very analytical approach.”
FORMER WAKE FOREST defensive again Thomas Brown delivers a model of a narrative of Elko’s playcalling wizardry that has popped up through the years throughout his practically twenty years as a school coordinator.
Brown remembers a 2015 sport at Syracuse his junior yr when all week Elko had excessive confidence in a third-down blitz. He knew if the Mike linebacker blitzed and obtained picked up by the operating again, Brown would sail in untouched from security. He was so certain of the end result, he made Brown promise to level to the press field to give him props for the decision when it labored.
Sure sufficient, on the primary possession, Brown sailed via untouched — “the hole parted like the Red Sea” — and delivered an enormous hit. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey barely had time to launch the ball, which fell incomplete. Brown celebrated along with his teammates because the punt unit got here on the sector.
When Brown returned to the sideline, he obtained phrase Elko wished him on the pinnacle set. Brown felt like he was being known as to the principal’s workplace, saying to himself, “I must have lined up wrong.”
Instead, Elko let loose a hearty chuckle: “You son of a gun,” Elko blurted out, “where was my point?”
This has performed out on totally different headsets and sidelines throughout the MAC, ACC and SEC through the years. Elko labored for Dave Clawson for 15 years at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake Forest, and he confirmed a knack for creating free runs on the quarterback.
“Mike got more people unblocked to the quarterback than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Clawson mentioned, including that Elko was a “savant” in diagnosing and anticipating what opposing coordinators will do.
Clawson advised an analogous story to Brown. When a Bowling Green linebacker named D.J. Lynch ran in untouched on a blitz and delivered a crunching sack in opposition to Kent State, he celebrated elaborately on the sector. Clawson remembers Elko chewing him out on the pinnacle 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 kid just sacked the guy,” Clawson mentioned. “He could’ve strip-sacked him.”
Watch the sport movie of Elko’s stops at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson, and it is full of fast gestures of gamers nodding to Elko’s schematic creativity. There’s salutes, bows and arrows and factors up to Elko within the press field from gamers thriving on the unimpeded paths their coach drew up.
“If the scheme gets you free, it should be a salute or a bow-and-arrow to the press box,” Elko mentioned, stressing the undercurrent of busting chops that got here with this rule. “It shouldn’t be this, ‘Oh my gosh, look at me’ celebration because if you get one-on-one and you beat a block and you sack the quarterback, sure, then you can do whatever you want. It was always with levity, but it’s funny.”
THE SERIES OF SALUTES provide a very good window in each Elko’s persona and what makes him profitable. Elko’s every day demeanor is a mirrored image of the Northeast model 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 only understand if you grow up in this area.”
But 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. 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’s additionally the aspect of Elko gamers gravitate towards. He’s as aggressive and demanding as he’s keen to present 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 that he keep engaged throughout a redshirt season.
“There’s a standard that he puts on everyone,” Bates mentioned. “Not just the best players but every player.”
Bates finally emerged as a kind of nice gamers, and he is now a star with the Cincinnati Bengals who made quite a few large performs on their run to the Super Bowl final yr. Bates credit the extent of element in Elko’s conferences and his skill to train 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 football IQ is something coaches rave about me,” Bates mentioned. “I just thank God for Coach Elko. He helped me tremendously. I give all the credit to him.”
Bates joked that “lil ole Wake Forest” emerged as one of many nation’s prime defenses thanks 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 Top 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 couple 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 skill to synthesize and convey difficult ideas merely and effectively.
“He’s a great teacher. He said, ‘This meeting will last 15 minutes — it’ll never last longer than that,” Swarbrick mentioned, including that he obtained each level throughout in that timeframe. “On an individual basis, helping his players understand what they’re doing and why, it’s really a gift.”
FROM KING’S POINT, the house of the Merchant Marine Academy, to his final cease in College 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 yr, which helped propel him into Power 5 job searches.
As he is pushed forward, Elko hasn’t taken a lot time to mirror. He did break character for a second in his workplace just lately when reflecting again on the second he knew he’d made it as a head coach again in December.
“Shaking Coach K’s hand at center court of Cameron, I’ll never forget that,” Elko mentioned. “Wow. This is a pretty cool deal that we embarked on.”
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 yr after Wake reached the ACC title sport. He arrived at Wake Forest with Clawson the yr after Duke performed for the ACC title underneath Cutcliffe in 2013.
“When we got to Wake, we put our eyes on Duke and went after them, right?” Elko mentioned in his workplace early this summer season. “We obviously caught them and passed them …
“Now I’m at Duke, them and we’re saying, ‘That’s the mannequin.’ We have to find a way to go after that. It will take time. It will not occur in a single day.”
The early building blocks have shown Elko pointing to the future. He impressed King by focusing his contract negotiations on securing resources to hire a better staff instead of his own compensation. Elko said he’s been able to tell recruits that Duke may not yet have the fanciest facilities or sprawling fan base, but they have “the identical high quality of individuals” and “workers infrastructure” on a model built in the mold of what he experienced at Notre Dame and Texas A&M.
So far, there’s more than 10 full-time positions, including doubling the size of the recruiting department and a full-time dedicated football nutritionist. The program looks physically different on the field, as Duke’s COVID-19 related restrictions limited how much the team could work out together.
“Clearly, we would have liked to put mass on,” Elko said. “It was probably the most obvious factor once I took over.”
King pointed out that one of the early relationships Elko courted was with Duke’s admissions director. It wasn’t to try and change admission standards, but more to understand the process and work efficiently, understanding potential differences in standards from his time at Notre Dame and Wake Forest.
It’s an example of Elko being dialed in on what Duke can be; he sees Duke’s national brand as one of the biggest assets in building the program back toward ACC contention. For the future to unfold at Duke the way Elko senses and anticipates, Duke’s core values are a strategic advantage.
“Is it solvable? Yes,” Elko said. “When I got here into league in 2014, Duke was on the pinnacle of what it was able to. They have 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 had 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.