DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Elko long saw a crossover in skill sets between playing poker and coordinating defenses. While in school at Penn and early in his college coaching career, Elko established himself as a standout poker player on Atlantic City trips with his college buddies and the occasional staff games.
The same tenets that apply to in-game play calling — intuition, anticipation and synthesizing odds — translate well to the poker table. And scoring a 760 on the math portion of the SAT helps with mid-game 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 doesn’t have any great poker stories because he never had enough money on his way up the coaching ladder to be involved in high roller games. He doesn’t play much anymore, but three games into his head coaching career, he’s led Duke to an unexpected high-stakes table.
For Elko, a career built in part on anticipating what’s coming has helped deliver a matchup no one could have projected as one of the buzzy games the weekend when Duke (3-0) heads to Kansas (3-0). The two traditional basketball powers are sharing an unlikely spotlight.
Duke and Kansas have been energized by new staffs, as Elko and second-year Kansas coach Lance Leipold have delivered surprise energy jolts to traditional football afterthoughts. Consider it the inside-straight of unexpected matchups.
Duke’s eye-opening start under Elko includes a home shutout of Temple in 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, but already matching last season’s win total has given the program an adrenaline shot of relevancy and optimism.
For Elko, a career spent hopscotching through stops like Stony Brook, United States Merchant Marine Academy and Hofstra has forged an appreciation both for the opportunity to be a Power 5 coach and the ingenuity that matches the challenge at Duke.
“I had to learn how to maximize every inch of the roster,” Elko said. “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 physical overhaul of the football offices, there hasn’t been much time for Elko to veer from his poker face since arriving in December. The Blue Devils’ 0-8 ACC run last season under David Cutcliffe included losses by an average of more than 31.7 points per game.
As Elko elevated from Ivy League player to small-college coach to the coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, his rise has been accompanied by hallmarks that include rare play-calling ability, elite teaching aptitude and the ability to foster defiant belief among his players.
Duke athletic director Nina King, who hired Elko, points out that Duke won the ACC Coastal division as recently as 2013, but the school “struggled with how to stay up at the top.” And that leaves Elko facing the dual challenge of architecting a rebuild while establishing the foundation 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 features “no catchy phrases.” Coach K appreciates that Elko is not a “social media giant.”
Krzyzewski also acknowledged the importance of Duke football at this inflection point for college athletics. Duke doesn’t need to be Ohio State or Alabama on the gridiron, but healthy football is critical for the athletic department and future amid the uncertain landscape.
“I think it’s really important for this football coach to see success,” Krzyzewski told 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 where Elko instilled enough belief in players, coaches and administrators that no one thinks he’s bluffing when he talks about returning Duke to ACC contention.
ELKO GREW UP in a trailer park in South Brunswick, New Jersey, which placed him between Rutgers and Princeton on the collegiate map.
Elko’s mother had him when she was 16, and she and his father both dropped out of high school to care for him. Elko’s mother worked for the Post Office and his dad for Amtrak, humble beginnings compared to some of his classmates at Penn, but Elko stresses he had everything he needed.
The tight confines at home led to Elko becoming a gym rat. And the trailer backed up to a park where he’d play basketball, stickball and football with kids in the neighborhood. That outlet forged a passion for sports.
“I don’t wanna make it sound like we were dirt poor,” Elko said. “We weren’t. I grew up in a town, and everyone in the town had what they had.”
Elko emerged as a good enough athlete to play at Penn, where he spent time at safety, emerged as a special teams captain and embodied many of the stereotypical traits of players who become coaches.
Former Penn coach Al Bagnoli coached Elko there in the late 1990s and later hired him as defensive backs coach in 2000. As a player, Elko not only knew his responsibilities and those of the other defensive backs. He could also help align the linebackers and make subtle, live in-game adjustments if players were shaded the wrong way on special teams.
“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 said. “He saw things through a little different prism that a lot of guys couldn’t at that age.”
Perhaps a better predictor of Elko’s coaching ascent was his ability to move seamlessly within groups of the team. Bagnoli said the range of an Ivy League team spans kids whose parents come to games on private jets to those who come from “virtually nothing.”
“Mike figured out pretty early that he could get along with everyone,” Bagnoli said. “That serves you pretty well, especially when you’re trying to recruit kids.”
Elko is quick to point out his path in coaching didn’t get off to as quick a start as Duke did this year. In his first game as a coordinator at Merchant Marine Academy in 2001, just three years out of college, he didn’t exactly leave any teaching tape on the field. They trailed 42-0 at halftime, and Elko thought he may get fired in the locker room before the third quarter.
Elko kept his job, called a shutout the next week and began forging a style that allowed him to blend his ability to think, connect and channel a few of the same skills he learned at the poker table.
“You’re trying to get into the head of the person that’s calling plays against you,” Elko said. “You’re trying to think ahead to what he might be thinking. It’s a very analytical approach.”
FORMER WAKE FOREST defensive back Thomas Brown delivers a version of a story of Elko’s play calling wizard that’s popped up over the years during his nearly two decades as a college coordinator.
Brown remembers a 2015 game at Syracuse his junior year when all week Elko had extreme confidence in a third-down blitz. He knew if the Mike linebacker blitzed and got picked up by the running back, Brown would sail in untouched from safety. He was so sure of the outcome, he made Brown promise to point to the press box to give him props for the call when it worked.
Sure enough, on the first possession, Brown sailed through untouched — “the hole parted like the red sea” — and delivered a big hit. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey barely had time to release the ball, which fell incomplete. Brown celebrated with his teammates as the punt unit came on the field.
When Brown returned to the sideline, he got word Elko wanted him on the head set. Brown felt like he was being called to the principal’s office, saying to himself, “I must have lined up wrong.”
Instead, Elko let out a hearty chuckle: “You son of a gun,” Elko blurted out, “where was my point?”
This has played out on different headsets and sidelines across the MAC, ACC and SEC over the years. Elko worked for Dave Clawson for 15 years at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake Forest, and he showed a knack for creating free runs at the quarterback “Mike got more people unblocked to the quarterback than anybody I’ve ever been around,” he said, adding that Elko was a “savant” in diagnosing and anticipating what opposing coordinators will do.
Clawson told a similar story to Brown. When a Bowling Green linebacker named D.J. Lynch ran in untouched on a blitz and delivered a crunching sack against Kent State, he celebrated elaborately on the field. Clawson recalls Elko chewing him out on the head set, as he not only didn’t point to the press box to say thank you for the free path to the quarterback, he didn’t complete the play. “Mike was mad that the kid just sacked the guy,” Clawson said. “He could’ve strip-sacked him.”
Watch the game film of Elko’s stops at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson, and it’s filled with quick gestures of players nodding to Elko’s schematic creativity. There’s salutes, bows and arrows and points up to Elko in the press box from players 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 said, stressing the undercurrent of busting chops that came 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 offer a good window in both Elko’s personality and what makes him successful. Elko’s daily demeanor is a reflection the Northeast style of building relationships through busting chops and trafficking in sarcasm. Bagnoli, his old college coach who is now head coach at Columbia, jokes that there’s a “crustiness” that “you only understand if you grow up in this area.”
But that’s paired with a relatability that former players rave about. Brown remembers Elko teasing him about his favorite boxer, Floyd Mayweather, questioning the fighter’s credentials. Part of Elko’s Notre Dame legacy is the volume of the rap music he listened to get fired up for games. Former Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates III said Elko having a son, Michael, who is a freshman baseball player at Northwestern, kept him in tune with what makes players from the younger generation tick.
That’s also the side of Elko players gravitate toward. He’s as competitive and demanding as he is willing to provide them the tools, schemes and knowledge to succeed.
Bates jokes he was an undersized safety who was 170 pounds soaking wet when Elko flipped him from Toledo, where he was committed to Matt Campbell. He appreciated Elko’s insistence he stay engaged during a redshirt season.
“There’s a standard that he puts on everyone,” Bates said. “Not just the best players but every player.”
Bates eventually emerged as one of those great players, and he’s now a star with the Cincinnati Bengals who made numerous big plays on their run to the Super Bowl last year. Bates credits the level of detail in Elko’s meetings and his ability to teach concisely with helping shape his football career. Bates declared for the NFL draft after redshirting and playing just two seasons at Wake Forest. He thanks Elko and former Wake assistant Lyle Hemphill, now the safeties coach at Duke, for preparing him mentally.
“My football IQ is something coaches rave about me,” Bates said. “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 the country’s top defenses thanks to Elko’s gift. Elko worked 18 years as a defensive coordinator, but he made his mark at Wake Forest when in 2016 the Demon Deacons had a Top 20 defense in nearly every major category. That led to his hiring at Notre Dame, where he arrived after Brian Kelly’s 4-8 season in 2016 and helped lead a turnaround to 10-3 in 2017.
A few months after Notre Dame hired Elko, athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat in on one of Elko’s meetings in summer camp and left impressed at his ability to synthesize and convey complicated concepts simply and efficiently.
“He’s a great teacher. He said, ‘This meeting will last 15 minutes — it’ll never last longer than that,” Swarbrick said, adding that he got every point across in that time frame. “On an individual basis, helping his players understand what they’re doing and why, it’s really a gift.”
FROM KING’S POINT, the home of the Merchant Marine Academy, to his last stop in College Station before coming to Duke, Elko’s 18 years coordinating has been marked by a linear rise and consistent success. That included the No. 3 defense in the country last year, which helped propel him into Power 5 job searches.
As he’s pushed ahead, Elko hasn’t taken much time to reflect. He did break character for a moment in his office recently when reflecting back on the moment he knew he’d made it as a head coach back in December.
“Shaking Coach K’s hand at center court of Cameron, I’ll never forget that,” Elko said. “Wow. This is a pretty cool deal that we embarked on.”
For Duke to return to ACC contention and make consistent bowl appearances, Elko will channel the blueprint laid down by Wake Forest.
He points out the irony of arriving Duke the year after Wake reached the ACC title game. He arrived at Wake Forest with Clawson the year after Duke played for the ACC title under Cutcliffe in 2013.
“When we got to Wake, we put our eyes on Duke and went after them, right?” Elko said in his office early this summer. “We obviously caught them and passed them …
“Now I’m at Duke, looking at them and we’re saying, ‘That’s the model.’ We have to be able to go after that. It will take time. It won’t happen overnight.”
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 same quality of people” and “staff 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 needed to put mass on,” Elko said. “It was the most apparent thing when 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 came into league in 2014, Duke was at the pinnacle of what it was capable of. They were coming off of an ACC championship appearance and had multiple NFL draft picks running around. It wasn’t like, it was just a bunch of try-hard kids. They had NFL players that are still playing in the NFL on that team. I think you’re capable of building that here.”
In a career built on sensing, anticipating and analyzing what’s next, Elko has already shown flashes of how he’ll play his cards.