New Duke coach Mike Elko focusing on foundation

The first-time head coach is trying to build on David Cutcliffe’s success

Duke coach Mike Elko speaks during the ACC Football Kickoff last Thursday in Charlotte. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The ACC Kickoff in Charlotte is the traditional opening of the new college football season each year. For Duke’s Mike Elko, it’s also now a workday.

“It’s different for sure,” he said while making the rounds with the various media outlets last week in Charlotte. “This used to be the day when the head coach left and we were on our own.”

That’s because up until eight months ago, Elko was an assistant coach. Now the longtime defensive coordinator is in the top spot, taking over a Duke program that had spent more than a decade under the leadership of David Cutcliffe.

That means that instead of having a day without the boss around, he’s the cat wondering what the mice are up to back on campus while he’s away doing media duties.

“I don’t know if there’s anything necessarily that I would say was surprising,” Elko said of his new role. “I just think the volume that falls into the head coaching chair — I don’t know as an assistant if you ever truly can understand that.”

Elko has worked as a coordinator for some of the sport’s most accomplished head coaches, including Dave Clawson, Brian Kelly and Jimbo Fisher. So he’s seen what it takes to succeed at the highest level. Still, there’s a difference between seeing it up close and being the one actually doing it.

“Not that you didn’t know and not that you didn’t have people tell you and prepare you for it, but when you get in that chair for the first time and you really go into undertaking all that is running a college football program, I think there’s some learning curves for sure,” he said.

Learning the job isn’t the only challenge facing Elko, however. He also has the task of replacing the man that brought Duke football back to prominence in Cutcliffe, who was extremely popular on campus, in the locker room and across the community. And Elko has to rebuild a program that, despite all of Cutcliffe’s success, hasn’t won an ACC game in a year and a half.

“We want to establish how you want the program to run,” he said of his priorities this season. “How you want the kids to act, how you want the kids to play. If you can establish that in year one, you build a structure to grow off of.”

While a few veteran players transferred after the school decided to part ways with Cutcliffe, Elko is pleased with the way he’s been accepted as the first new voice in the Duke locker room since 2007.

“It’s been an unbelievable culture shift for us,” he said. “A lot of times when you take over a new program, you get a lot of resistance. You get a lot of fight back. I think these three guys on the stage with me (offensive lineman Jacob Monk, defensive tackle DeWayne Carter and linebacker Shaka Heyward) kind of represent our entire program. They’ve just done an amazing job buying into what we’re trying to do. We’ve asked them to do a lot of different things. Not necessarily better, worse. Just different. I think they’ve kind of jumped at the opportunity.”

Elko retained some of Cutcliffe’s staff — most notably assistant coach Trooper Taylor, who served as interim coach while Duke went through its search for Cutcliffe’s replacement. He’s also been effusive in his praise of Cutcliffe, talking about wanting to build off of what the longtime Duke coach began.

“It’s been a lot of positive change,” Carter said. “It’s been very smooth. We’ve laid a good foundation and, most importantly, the best positive change is it’s really like a player and coach relationship partnership. We’re working together.”

While it’s still the same team that went 0-8 in the ACC last season, Duke has reason for hope. Elko has been extremely successful on the recruiting front, landing nearly a commitment a day through the month of June, leading many to believe that his talk of building excitement around a program that has often been overlooked may have some substance to it. He’s also coaching in a division that has four newcomers at head coach, allowing the Blue Devils to possibly take advantage of the transition.

But the first-time head coach has already mastered the football coaching cliché of not looking too far forward.

“Sometimes, you can jump the gun a little bit and focus on things that aren’t foundation,” he said. “We’re trying to build a house that will last for a really long time at Duke.”