That loud exhale you heard Wednesday morning was from Texas A&M fans, who woke up to the news that Mike Elko wouldn’t be leaving College Station to take the Kansas job.

Whether those talks were legitimate or not, the Aggies’ defensive coordinator has become an indispensable piece of Jimbo Fisher’s foundation. Elko is now entering Dave Aranda territory, which means he’s heading into Year 4 as one of the sport’s top defensive coordinators, yet he’s seemingly on the brink of getting that first FBS head coaching gig in his early 40s.

Kansas is the only available FBS opening, which all but guarantees that Elko is not going anywhere. Yet.

Consider that all the more reason 2021 in College Station is so important.

Elko might not quite be in the Brent Venables camp of repeatedly being a candidate for seemingly every Power 5 opening, only to turn it down. But one has to think that if Elko puts together another elite season by helping the Aggies reach a New Year’s 6 bowl again, the opportunities available will be a bit more attractive than Kansas.

Some have speculated that when Elko’s son, Michael, goes off to college in 2022 — he’ll be playing baseball at Northwestern — that the elder Elko will be ready for the next challenge. If that is the case, A&M fans should be grateful to have had Elko for 4 years.

In case you needed a little reminder of how tough it was to field a quality defense at A&M after Year 1 of the Kevin Sumlin era, well, this is telling:

A&M run defense
Total defense
Scoring defense
No. 112
No. 110
No. 96
No. 111
No. 104
No. 78
No. 108
No. 52
No. 28
No. 80
No. 90
No. 40
No. 71
No. 77
No. 87
2018 (Elko arrives)
No. 2
No. 32
No. 47
No. 30
No. 29
No. 38
No. 2
No. 9
No. 28

To recap, Elko’s defenses have:

  • A) Finished No. 2 against the run 2 of 3 years
  • B) Improved every year in scoring
  • C) Improved every year in yards allowed
  • D) Had better run/total defense numbers than each 2013-17 Sumlin era unit
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

A&M fans have learned to appreciate Elko. Shoot, A&M has learned to appreciate Elko. That’s why last year, Elko ranked No. 5 among the nation’s highest-paid assistants at $2.1 million annually, which was the result of a raise he got before the 2019 season. What’s interesting is that 2 of the 3 defensive coordinators who made more than Elko last year were Bo Pelini and Kevin Steele, both of whom were fired (5 0f the top 10 highest-paid assistants in FBS from 2020 were fired).

It’s no secret that the coaching carousel hasn’t necessarily been kind to the defensive-minded coaches. Among the 15 FBS head coaching changes (not including Kansas), only South Alabama, Boise State, Vanderbilt and Illinois were filled by defensive-minded coaches. The market doesn’t really suggest defensive-minded coaches like Elko are valued at the Power 5 level like they once were.

Could that keep Elko in College Station for a Year 5? Perhaps, though it’s probably too early to project what the Power 5 market will look like come December. That could’ve been at the root of Elko’s decision to stay at A&M as long as he has.

One would think Elko’s odds of leaving for a Group of 5 job aren’t too likely, especially since Boise State and UCF just made coaching moves. It’s not all about money, but as a coordinator, Elko was paid more than all but 5 Group of 5 head coaches in 2020. If you’re Elko, getting paid $2 million to have total autonomy on defense — combined with the ability to recruit at a top-5 level in the talent-rich state of Texas — has clearly been attractive.

There’s also the other side of the coin. This will be his 13th season as an FBS defensive coordinator, and it’ll be Year 8 as a Power 5 defensive coordinator. Even Aranda only worked as a Power 5 defensive coordinator for 7 years.

Elko’s next move won’t be based on Aranda or anyone else’s path but his own.

Some in his spot wouldn’t have left Notre Dame for the same position at Texas A&M. Looking back, Fisher’s ability to poach Elko from the Irish had to be considered among his top 2 best moves since arriving in College Station.

As much as the offensive transformation dominated the headlines, A&M wouldn’t have earned its best AP Top 25 finish in 81 years without Elko working wonders on defense. The Aggies wouldn’t have been in position to argue about a Playoff snub had Elko’s defense not consistently gotten off the field (A&M was among the top 1/4 among Power 5 teams in stop rate).

Elko will have a tougher challenge of repeating that success this year after losing the underrated yet invaluable Bobby Brown and Buddy Johnson from the front 7. It’s still a group that, led by future first-round prospect DeMarvin Leal and the promising Jayden Peevy, figures to do typical Elko things. That is, load up the line of scrimmage, stuff the run, occasionally get gashed in the passing game (who doesn’t these days?), get off the field and wind up as one of the SEC’s top units.

If this is Elko’s last year in College Station, though, remember that defensive coordinators of his caliber don’t grow on trees. A defensive mind on his level can be the difference between a team being nationally irrelevant by late-October and being in the Playoff hunt in December.

Last December when A&M missed out on the Playoff, Elko addressed the media ahead of the Orange Bowl. More specifically, he addressed the elephant in the room coming off his best defensive season yet. He said that while everyone dreams of becoming a head coach, he wasn’t even generally thinking about where his career could lead at that point, and that he was happy being A&M’s defensive coordinator.

There might come a time in the not-so-distant future when Elko changes his tune. Fortunately for A&M, the Kansas job didn’t expedite that process. There’s never been a better time to appreciate the present with Elko, regardless of what his future holds.

As long as he’s in College Station, though, exhales are appropriate.