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Mike Elko has led Duke soccer to an sudden high-stakes desk

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DURHAM, N.C. — Mike Elko lengthy noticed a crossover in ability units between taking part in poker and coordinating defenses. Whereas in class at Penn and early in his faculty teaching profession, Elko established himself as a standout poker participant on Atlantic Metropolis journeys along with his faculty buddies and the occasional workers video games.

The identical tenets that apply to in-game play calling — instinct, anticipation and synthesizing odds — translate nicely to the poker desk. And scoring a 760 on the mathematics portion of the SAT helps with mid-game calculations.

“I discovered rapidly that you simply had been higher off taking part in a sport,” Elko says with a chuckle, “that the on line casino did not care who received.”

Elko, 45, jokes he does not have any nice poker tales as a result of he by no means had sufficient cash on his means up the teaching ladder to be concerned in excessive curler video games. He does not play a lot anymore, however three video games into his head teaching profession, he is led Duke to an sudden high-stakes desk.

For Elko, a profession constructed partially on anticipating what’s coming has helped ship a matchup nobody might have projected as one of many buzzy video games the weekend when Duke (3-0) heads to Kansas (3-0). The 2 conventional basketball powers are sharing an unlikely highlight.

Duke and Kansas have been energized by new staffs, as Elko and second-year Kansas coach Lance Leipold have delivered shock power jolts to conventional soccer afterthoughts. Take into account it the inside-straight of sudden matchups.

Duke’s eye-opening begin beneath Elko features a dwelling shutout of Temple within the opener and a 31-23 win at Northwestern as a 9.5-point underdog. Nobody is sending PDFs of Duke’s resume to the Faculty Soccer Playoff, however already matching final season’s win whole has given this system an adrenaline shot of relevancy and optimism.

For Elko, a profession spent hopscotching by means of stops like Stony Brook, United States Service provider Marine Academy and Hofstra has solid an appreciation each for the chance to be a Energy 5 coach and the ingenuity that matches the problem at Duke.

“I needed to learn to maximize each inch of the roster,” Elko stated. “And I feel that is crafted me into attempting to run a program the place you possibly can overachieve, the place you possibly can maximize what you are able to changing into versus beginning with an elite expertise.”

From overhauling Duke’s weight program to a bodily overhaul of the soccer workplaces, there hasn’t been a lot time for Elko to veer from his poker face since arriving in December. The Blue Devils’ 0-8 ACC run final season beneath David Cutcliffe included losses by a mean of greater than 31.7 factors per sport.

As Elko elevated from Ivy League participant to small-college coach to the coordinator at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Texas A&M, his rise has been accompanied by hallmarks that embrace uncommon play-calling potential, elite educating aptitude and the flexibility to foster defiant perception amongst his gamers.

Duke athletic director Nina King, who employed Elko, factors out that Duke received the ACC Coastal division as not too long ago as 2013, however the faculty “struggled with find out how to keep up on the high.” And that leaves Elko dealing with the twin problem of architecting a rebuild whereas establishing the inspiration for sustainable success.

Elko has already earned a key advocate in former Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who lauded him for an “old skool fashion” that options “no catchy phrases.” Coach Ok appreciates that Elko shouldn’t be a “social media big.”

Krzyzewski additionally acknowledged the significance of Duke soccer at this inflection level for faculty athletics. Duke does not must be Ohio State or Alabama on the gridiron, however wholesome soccer is vital for the athletic division and future amid the unsure panorama.

“I feel it is actually essential for this soccer coach to see success,” Krzyzewski instructed ESPN. “I feel many individuals round him are hoping for fulfillment. They do not essentially see it. They need it. He sees it, and he sees the street he has to journey to get it.”

That roadmap comes from a path the place Elko instilled sufficient perception in gamers, coaches and directors that nobody thinks he is bluffing when he talks about returning Duke to ACC rivalry.


ELKO GREW UP in a trailer park in South Brunswick, New Jersey, which positioned him between Rutgers and Princeton on the collegiate map.

Elko’s mom had him when she was 16, and she or he and his father each dropped out of highschool to look after him. Elko’s mom labored for the Publish Workplace and his dad for Amtrak, humble beginnings in comparison with a few of his classmates at Penn, however Elko stresses he had every little thing he wanted.

The tight confines at dwelling led to Elko changing into a gymnasium rat. And the trailer backed as much as a park the place he’d play basketball, stickball and soccer with youngsters within the neighborhood. That outlet solid a ardour for sports activities.

“I do not wanna make it sound like we had been dust poor,” Elko stated. “We weren’t. I grew up in a city, and everybody within the city had what that they had.”

Elko emerged as a adequate athlete to play at Penn, the place he frolicked at security, emerged as a particular groups captain and embodied most of the stereotypical traits of gamers who grow to be coaches.

Former Penn coach Al Bagnoli coached Elko there within the late Nineteen Nineties and later employed him as defensive backs coach in 2000. As a participant, Elko not solely knew his tasks and people of the opposite defensive backs. He might additionally assist align the linebackers and make delicate, stay in-game changes if gamers had been shaded the improper means on particular groups.

“We now have actually quite a lot of brilliant guys, however that does not imply they’ve nice soccer acumen, so with Mike it was a pleasant mixture,” Bagnoli stated. “He noticed issues by means of somewhat completely different prism that quite a lot of guys could not at that age.”

Maybe a greater predictor of Elko’s teaching ascent was his potential to maneuver seamlessly inside teams of the staff. Bagnoli stated the vary of an Ivy League staff spans youngsters whose dad and mom come to video games on non-public jets to those that come from “nearly nothing.”

“Mike found out fairly early that he might get together with everybody,” Bagnoli stated. “That serves you fairly nicely, particularly while you’re attempting to recruit youngsters.”

Elko is fast to level out his path in teaching did not get off to as fast a begin as Duke did this yr. In his first sport as a coordinator at Service provider Marine Academy in 2001, simply three years out of faculty, he did not precisely go away any educating tape on the sector. They trailed 42-0 at halftime, and Elko thought he might get fired within the locker room earlier than the third quarter.

Elko saved his job, known as a shutout the subsequent week and commenced forging a method that allowed him to mix his potential to assume, join and channel just a few of the identical abilities he discovered on the poker desk.

“You are attempting to get into the top of the person who’s calling performs in opposition to you,” Elko stated. “You are attempting to assume forward to what he may be considering. It is a very analytical strategy.”


FORMER WAKE FOREST defensive again Thomas Brown delivers a model of a narrative of Elko’s play calling wizard that is popped up over time throughout his practically 20 years as a university coordinator.

Brown remembers a 2015 sport at Syracuse his junior yr when all week Elko had excessive confidence in a third-down blitz. He knew if the Mike linebacker blitzed and obtained picked up by the operating again, Brown would sail in untouched from security. He was so certain of the result, he made Brown promise to level to the press field to provide him props for the decision when it labored.

Positive sufficient, on the primary possession, Brown sailed by means of untouched — “the opening parted just like the crimson sea” — and delivered an enormous hit. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey barely had time to launch the ball, which fell incomplete. Brown celebrated along with his teammates because the punt unit got here on the sector.

When Brown returned to the sideline, he obtained phrase Elko needed him on the top set. Brown felt like he was being known as to the principal’s workplace, saying to himself, “I will need to have lined up improper.”

As an alternative, Elko let loose a hearty chuckle: “You son of a gun,” Elko blurted out, “the place was my level?”

This has performed out on completely different headsets and sidelines throughout the MAC, ACC and SEC over time. Elko labored for Dave Clawson for 15 years at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Inexperienced and Wake Forest, and he confirmed a knack for creating free runs on the quarterback “Mike obtained extra individuals unblocked to the quarterback than anyone I’ve ever been round,” he stated, including that Elko was a “savant” in diagnosing and anticipating what opposing coordinators will do.

Clawson instructed an identical story to Brown. When a Bowling Inexperienced linebacker named D.J. Lynch ran in untouched on a blitz and delivered a crunching sack in opposition to Kent State, he celebrated elaborately on the sector. Clawson remembers Elko chewing him out on the top set, as he not solely did not level to the press field to say thanks for the free path to the quarterback, he did not full the play. “Mike was mad that the child simply sacked the man,” Clawson stated. “He might’ve strip-sacked him.”

Watch the sport movie of Elko’s stops at Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Clemson, and it is crammed with fast gestures of gamers nodding to Elko’s schematic creativity. There’s salutes, bows and arrows and factors as much as Elko within the press field from gamers thriving on the unimpeded paths their coach drew up.

“If the scheme will get you free, it needs to be a salute or a bow-and-arrow to the press field,” Elko stated, stressing the undercurrent of busting chops that got here with this rule. “It should not be this, ‘Oh my gosh, have a look at me’ celebration as a result of should you get one-on-one and also you beat a block and also you sack the quarterback, certain, then you are able to do no matter you need. It was all the time with levity, nevertheless it’s humorous.”


THE SERIES OF SALUTES provide an excellent window in each Elko’s persona and what makes him profitable. Elko’s day by day demeanor is a mirrored image the Northeast fashion of constructing relationships by means of busting chops and trafficking in sarcasm. Bagnoli, his outdated faculty coach who’s now head coach at Columbia, jokes that there is a “crustiness” that “you solely perceive should you develop up on this space.”

However that is paired with a relatability that former gamers rave about. Brown remembers Elko teasing him about his favourite boxer, Floyd Mayweather, questioning the fighter’s credentials. A part of Elko’s Notre Dame legacy is the quantity of the rap music he listened to get fired up for video games. Former Wake Forest security Jessie Bates III stated Elko having a son, Michael, who’s a freshman baseball participant at Northwestern, saved him in tune with what makes gamers from the youthful era tick.

That is additionally the facet of Elko gamers gravitate towards. He is as aggressive and demanding as he’s prepared to supply them the instruments, schemes and information to succeed.

Bates jokes he was an undersized security who was 170 kilos soaking moist when Elko flipped him from Toledo, the place he was dedicated to Matt Campbell. He appreciated Elko’s insistence he keep engaged throughout a redshirt season.

“There’s a normal that he places on everybody,” Bates stated. “Not simply one of the best gamers however each participant.”

Bates ultimately emerged as a type of nice gamers, and he is now a star with the Cincinnati Bengals who made quite a few large performs on their run to the Tremendous Bowl final yr. Bates credit the extent of element in Elko’s conferences and his potential to show concisely with serving to form his soccer profession. Bates declared for the NFL draft after redshirting and taking part in simply two seasons at Wake Forest. He thanks Elko and former Wake assistant Lyle Hemphill, now the safeties coach at Duke, for getting ready him mentally.

“My soccer IQ is one thing coaches rave about me,” Bates stated. “I simply thank God for Coach Elko. He helped me tremendously. I give all of the credit score to him.”

Bates joked that “lil ole Wake Forest” emerged as one of many nation’s high defenses because of Elko’s present. Elko labored 18 years as a defensive coordinator, however he made his mark at Wake Forest when in 2016 the Demon Deacons had a Prime 20 protection in practically each main class. That led to his hiring at Notre Dame, the place he arrived after Brian Kelly’s 4-8 season in 2016 and helped lead a turnaround to 10-3 in 2017.

A couple of months after Notre Dame employed Elko, athletic director Jack Swarbrick sat in on one among Elko’s conferences in summer season camp and left impressed at his potential to synthesize and convey difficult ideas merely and effectively.

“He is an awesome instructor. He stated, ‘This assembly will final quarter-hour — it will by no means last more than that,” Swarbrick stated, including that he obtained each level throughout in that timeframe. “On a person foundation, serving to his gamers perceive what they’re doing and why, it is actually a present.”


FROM KING’S POINT, the house of the Service provider Marine Academy, to his final cease in Faculty Station earlier than coming to Duke, Elko’s 18 years coordinating has been marked by a linear rise and constant success. That included the No. 3 protection within the nation final yr, which helped propel him into Energy 5 job searches.

As he is pushed forward, Elko hasn’t taken a lot time to mirror. He did break character for a second in his workplace not too long ago when reflecting again on the second he knew he’d made it as a head coach again in December.

“Shaking Coach Ok’s hand at middle courtroom of Cameron, I am going to always remember that,” Elko stated. “Wow. It is a fairly cool deal that we launched into.”

For Duke to return to ACC rivalry and make constant bowl appearances, Elko will channel the blueprint laid down by Wake Forest.

He factors out the irony of arriving Duke the yr after Wake reached the ACC title sport. He arrived at Wake Forest with Clawson the yr after Duke performed for the ACC title beneath Cutcliffe in 2013.

“After we obtained to Wake, we put our eyes on Duke and went after them, proper?” Elko stated in his workplace early this summer season. “We clearly caught them and handed them …

“Now I am at Duke, them and we’re saying, ‘That is the mannequin.’ We now have to have the ability to go after that. It’s going to take time. It will not occur in a single day.”

The early constructing blocks have proven Elko pointing to the long run. He impressed King by focusing his contract negotiations on securing assets to rent a greater workers as a substitute of his personal compensation. Elko stated he is been capable of inform recruits that Duke might not but have the fanciest services or sprawling fan base, however they’ve “the identical high quality of individuals” and “workers infrastructure” on a mannequin constructed within the mildew of what he skilled at Notre Dame and Texas A&M.

Up to now, there’s greater than 10 full-time positions, together with doubling the dimensions of the recruiting division and a full-time devoted soccer nutritionist. This system seems bodily completely different on the sector, as Duke’s COVID-19 associated restrictions restricted how a lot the staff might work out collectively.

“Clearly, we would have liked to place mass on,” Elko stated. “It was probably the most obvious factor once I took over.”

King identified that one of many early relationships Elko courted was with Duke’s admissions director. It wasn’t to try to change admission requirements, however extra to know the method and work effectively, understanding potential variations in requirements from his time at Notre Dame and Wake Forest.

It is an instance of Elko being dialed in on what Duke might be; he sees Duke’s nationwide model as one of many largest property in constructing this system again towards ACC rivalry. For the long run to unfold at Duke the way in which Elko senses and anticipates, Duke’s core values are a strategic benefit.

“Is it solvable? Sure,” Elko stated. “Once I got here into league in 2014, Duke was on the pinnacle of what it was able to. They had been coming off of an ACC championship look and had a number of NFL draft picks operating round. It wasn’t like, it was only a bunch of try-hard youngsters. They’d NFL gamers which can be nonetheless taking part in within the NFL on that staff. I feel you are able to constructing that right here.”

In a profession constructed on sensing, anticipating and analyzing what’s subsequent, Elko has already proven flashes of how he’ll play his playing cards.


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