O'Gara: I've always believed in Mike Elko, and that'll continue after Texas A&M's search ended with him
For the past 6 1/2 years, I found myself believing in Mike Elko.
That started with a conversation on the sideline at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. On an afternoon in which there were big-time assistants there from coast-to-coast — then-Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman, then-Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard and then-Penn State receivers coach Josh Gattis were some of the few — Elko was the first coach there.
At the time, Elko wasn’t a household name and I admittedly didn’t recognize him. He had just taken the Notre Dame defensive coordinator job a few months earlier, and like those other assistants, Elko was there to recruit the hotbed of talent that was IMG. He struck up a conversation with myself and a fellow reporter. It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but I came away feeling like he knew exactly what he was doing and that he was destined to run his own program one day.
(He even set that fellow reporter straight when he suggested to Elko that IMG’s bevy of talent was being plucked by the SEC … Elko strongly disagreed and made it known.)
Fast forward to Elko’s first stint at Texas A&M when he was Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator. I banged the drum for him that his defenses were more dominant than they got credit for, especially in 2021 when A&M only got to an 8-4 record because of Elko’s No. 3 scoring defense.
Fast forward to Elko’s first head coaching gig when he got to Duke after 13 years as an FBS defensive coordinator. I had him on the Saturday Down South Podcast when he was still living out of a hotel and the only directions he knew in Durham were how to get from there to the Duke football offices. It was clear then that he had a plan to take a bottom-feeder Power 5 program and turn it around in a hurry. That was before he went 16-9 in 2 seasons at Duke while A&M stumbled to a 13-11 record without him.
“Do the best you can at the place that you’re at and good opportunities will come to you,” Elko said that day.
Fast forward to Sunday when multiple outlets reported that Elko was set to become A&M’s next head coach. It was Elko, not long-time Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, who made the most sense for A&M. Elko’s 4 years at A&M and 2 turning around Duke made him an obvious choice, though one with far less splash than Fisher.
Despite what that $77 buyout million suggested, A&M didn’t need splash to replace Fisher. It needed someone who A&M and knew how to build a program. It needed someone who has shown an elite ability to recruit and develop talent. Elko is that guy.
(Fisher wouldn’t have signed that historic recruiting class without Elko’s efforts on the trail.)
Does that mean Elko is destined to succeed? Of course not. This is A&M. As in, the program that just paid a coach $77 million to bolt because he was stubborn and set in his ways.
Nothing about his past suggests that Elko will be stubborn. He made a habit of adapting well to his surroundings. In the Playoff era, he led 4 different Power 5 programs to finishes in the top 1/4 in scoring, and at Duke, he embraced hiring an offensive coordinator who ran a spread scheme.
Sure, Elko will need to nail his offensive coordinator hire. The same was true of Fisher, who didn’t make that jump to hire a primary play-caller until Year 6 after his archaic offense fizzled out post-2020. If there’s disappointment that Fisher’s replacement isn’t some offensive savant, remember that Billy Napier is the last remaining SEC head coach who has primary play-calling duties as an offensive coordinator … and look at how that’s working out.
It’s also true that Elko’s path to leading A&M to its first SEC Championship berth will get more challenging with Oklahoma and Texas on board. Ultimately, Elko’s ability to have A&M consistently competing for a 12-team Playoff spot will define his tenure. At a place that hasn’t had consecutive top-12 finishes in 3 decades, Elko is tasked with doing what his former boss couldn’t.
That is, turn the program into a heavyweight instead of a punching bag.
Clearly, A&M decision-makers paid attention to what Elko did in Durham. By September of Year 2, he had Duke hosting College GameDay for the first time ahead of a Top-25 matchup against Notre Dame. A&M, meanwhile, went to College Station in September of Year 1 of the Fisher era for a Week 2 showdown against Clemson … and never returned.
But it’s not just about eyeballs. A&M has to start doing the little things better. Like, ending a program record 10-game road losing streak would be beneficial. Embracing the transfer portal and using it to address key personnel needs should be a staple. Establishing an offensive identity and consistently having one of the SEC’s top 3-4 offenses should be within reach.
Everything, in theory, should be in reach for Elko. That’s why you take a job like A&M. Sure, it has its quirks. Those are only made fun of when you’re losing. If Elko moves past the 8-4 jokes, he’ll be a savior. There’s no denying with those resources and that proximity to recruiting talent, it’s teed up for the right person.
Elko has a prime opportunity to be just that. Time will tell if he can be what A&M spent the last 2 decades searching for.
Once again, though, I find myself believing in Elko.