NSJ 2022 Coach of the Year: Replacing a legend, Elko turns Duke around in 1st season

The Blue Devils enter the Military Bowl with an 8-4 record

Mike Elko, pictured waving to fans after earning his first win as Duke’s head coach on Sept. 2, won eight regular season games in his debut season with the Blue Devils. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

From 2007 to December 2021, ACC football teams had a total of 45 different head coaches. Through it all, Duke had the same coach.

That changed following the 2021 season, a disappointing one coming on the heels of two similar letdowns. It was time to make a move.

So Duke did just that, parting ways with David Cutcliffe — the man who had built the program up from the rubble — and brought in the North State Journal’s choice for 2022 Coach of the Year: Mike Elko.

A former defensive coordinator, Elko was stepping into his first head coaching job. At ACC media day over the summer, he still seemed to be getting used to his new role, saying, “This used to be the day (on campus) when the head coach left and we were on our own.”

Elko inherited a team that appeared to have stagnated with three straight losing seasons and an apathetic fanbase. He set about not just building up the product on the field but the interest in it among fans and alumni. The latter was a task that no Duke coach, from Spurrier to Cutcliffe, had been able to accomplish consistently.

“We will win championships on the field in the fall,” Elko said in his introductory press conference. “I want to make sure I say that again — we will win championships on the field in the fall.”

He held up Duke’s successful basketball team, which often overshadows the football program, as a model to aspire toward.

“Now it’s time for football to get on that level,” he said. “It’s time for football to hold its end of the bargain and elevate itself to being a national brand and a nationally recognized program.”

Elko preached a coaching philosophy of GRIND, an acronym for “Grit, Relentless effort, Integrity, living in the Now and being Dependable” which was painted on the sidelines at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Elko tried to lower expectations, saying that this was a year to build the foundation for the program he wanted at Duke.

“We want to establish how you want the program to run,” he said. “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.”

Instead of just digging a basement and erecting rebar, however, the team began winning on the field. The Blue Devils won their first three, matching last season’s win total for the entire year.

They pounded Virginia and Miami and put a scare into UNC, losing by three.

On Nov. 4, in their ninth game of the year, the Blue Devils recorded their sixth win, becoming bowl eligible. Even in successful seasons in recent years, Duke seemed to be going down the stretch looking for win six and checking the remaining bowl vacancies to see if five wins and the always-high graduation rate on the Duke team would be enough to get them in. The sixth win also gave them one more than in the previous two seasons combined.

The Blue Devils then added wins over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest to wrap up an 8-4 season. They were 5-3 in the ACC Coastal, with the three points against Carolina keeping them from winning the division title and going to the ACC Championship Game.

Now Duke moves on to its first bowl game since 2018, playing UCF in the Military Bowl.

After beating Wake and wrapping up a season that would result in the ACC Coach of the Year award for Elko, quarterback Riley Leonard, who came to Duke to study at the hand of quarterback whisperer Cutcliffe but blossomed into a star under the defensive guy, explained the change in the Blue Devils.

“The thing that stands out most to me is we go into every single game expecting to win,” said Leonard. “Trusting that if we do our job, we’re going to win. In years past, some guys had predetermined things in their heads, but this year, there was not one game we went into thinking we were going to lose. The winning mentality in this Duke organization is definitely the biggest change this year.”

“Our kids just keep fighting,” Elko said. “I don’t know how many times we can say it. I don’t know how many times they can prove it. They will not blink. They will not stop coming. … We had ups and downs. There were times we looked good and times we didn’t, but we just don’t stop. We keep coming.”

It was a team that had embraced Elko’s GRIND.

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