He’s a Jersey boy, a Yankees fan and a father of three whose gridiron successes led him to Durham, where in his first season as head coach he posted an 8-4 record and was named ACC Coach of the Year. Meet Mike Elko, 46, who steps up to lead the Blue Devils football team into a highly anticipated second season. Elko coached at 10 universities – even the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy – before stepping into his first head coaching role at Duke in 2021. He played quarterback in high school and went on to not only play football but earn a history degree from Penn. P.S.: He’s a serious dude, most of the time, who loves a good comedy club.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Me with my family on a vacation somewhere. Maybe on a lake. My wife and I like different things. She’s mountains and I’m beach, so we meet in the middle at a lake.
If you could be something other than a coach, what would it be? I think I would have been a lawyer.
What is your favorite journey? Most recently, we took a family trip up the Pacific Coach Highway, drove from L.A. to San Francisco. That was my favorite trip. The greater journey that just sticks out is the duration of my coaching career. Looking back and saying my first defensive coordinator job was at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, to my last job at Texas A&M. I just think the totality of that journey in coaching has shaped my life in so many ways.
What is your most marked characteristic? I think my players would say my witty sarcasm. Being from New Jersey and growing up the way I did, that would be the classic Mike Elko trait.
What talent – outside of coaching – would you most like to have? I always said the best talent in life would be to be a left-handed pitcher. I always thought that the life of a baseball pitcher was one I envied. If I could throw the ball 95 mph with my left hand, that would be amazing. (Sidenote: His fave team is the New York Yankees.)
What is the trait you like most about yourself? My ability to adapt and problem-solve. It’s one of the things that has served me well in my professional life and my personal life as a father.
What do you most value in your friends? Genuineness.
Who is your favorite hero of sports? My favorite sports person is Michael Jordan. Just the way he chased greatness in every aspect of his game and the way he attacked his flaws and was consistently looking to improve. That exemplifies the mindset of a champion, the models of greatness in sport. I think Derek Jeter would be a close second.
Who are your heroes in real life and why? I think my parents, the values they have instilled in me. It’s been well documented that they were both very young, and they helped me get where I am today – that is the easy choice.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “What are we doing?” That would be one that would get quite a chuckle from anyone who has played for me. It’s said always in frustration. That’s like the ultimate way, when things get really south, of just throwing my hands up and questioning the world.
What makes you laugh the most? Comedians. My wife (Michelle) and I have always enjoyed going to a good comedy club. I’m probably pretty serious in life … but in that setting we’ve seen some really funny comedians over the years. That brings out the most jovial side of me. His faves: Kevin Hart and John Caparulo.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? Doing a better job of enjoying the moment. I probably spend a lot of time in this profession worrying about the next moment and not always enjoying the one we are in.
What is the possession that you most treasure and why? My wedding ring. My family is really important to me, and my wife, her being with me on this professional journey, I certainly couldn’t do it without her. It’s about as simple as it gets. It’s plain gold. It’s me.
What is your favorite music (for relaxing, practicing, driving)? Driving, usually country (with some occasional Broadway hits). His fave: Zach Brown Band. Game day it flips completely to hip-hop. His fave: Jay-Z.
What is your favorite spot on the Duke campus? It’s hard not to say Cameron, being a sports fan. That center-court handshake with Coach K when I got introduced as head coach was very special. That was always a place I dreamed of going.
What is the best advice you ever received about life? Bet on yourself. Trust and believe in who you are.
What's the best advice you received about coaching – and who gave it? I credit it to Sam Kornhauser (former football coach at Stony Brook University) who was my first head coach. He said: Be where your feet are in this profession. Put your head down, do the best job where you are, not worrying what tomorrow is going to look like or where you’re going next.
What is one thing you’d like tell the Duke alums about your role as head coach and how you do your job as an athletics leader on campus? I’m here to lead Duke football in step with the vision of Duke University. We can build a really elite football program doing things the right way with the right kids that can make this university proud on and off the field.