April 15, 2024

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Mike Elko was introduced as Texas A&M’s new head coach on Monday, telling a group of fans gathered inside Kyle Field that he is ready for the big expectations facing him.

“We are going to build the premier football program in the country,” Elko said. “We are not going to talk about it anymore. We are going to be about it.”

Elko, 46, spent four years in College Station under Jimbo Fisher from 2018-2021 before leaving for his first head coaching opportunity at Duke, where he went 16-9 over the past two seasons and was named the ACC Coach of the Year in 2022.

Following Fisher’s dismissal on Nov. 12, Elko became a prime candidate to return to A&M, ultimately agreeing on a six-year contract that has a base salary of $7 million per year but with several College Football Playoff incentives: $1 million for a CFP appearance; $1.5 million for advancing to the CFP quarterfinals or winning the SEC; $2 million for a CFP semifinal appearance; $2.5 million for the CFP title game; $3.5 million for a national title. The contract includes an $11 million salary pool for assistants and support staff, which Bjork called “reasonable but competitive,” estimating it was in the top 10 nationally.

The contract still needs to be approved at a Nov. 30 meeting of the board of regents, but marks a departure from Fisher’s fully guaranteed contract that paid $9.5 million annually. In this case, if Elko led the Aggies to a national title, he’d make $10.5 million and any postseason incentive adds an additional year to his contract.

“We wanted to be fair in the market,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said. “But we also wanted to say, hey, look, I think the landscape can change where you actually have to earn things. If somebody believes in themselves, believes in their plan, they have the right approach, they’ll earn it. And as you can see, you have a chance to be paid like a national championship-level coach.”

Both Elko and Bjork reiterated that they wanted interim coach Elijah Robinson, who will remain the acting head coach through a bowl game, to remain on staff as long as he wanted and that it was a priority to try to retain him.

Elko faces a daunting schedule in his first weeks on the job. Players are allowed to enter the transfer portal immediately due to the coaching change and he’ll have to hire a staff and put the finishing touches on the Aggies’ recruiting class for the December 20 signing day. But he has somewhat of a head start because he knows so many players on the current roster.

“There’s not many times when you go into the first team meeting and 50 of the players come up and give you a big hug and welcome you back,” Elko said. “But then I think when you get up in front of them, all of that has to go away, because it’s about new leadership. It’s about new direction. It’s about establishing a new identity.”

The Aggies turned to Elko in search of that identity. Under Fisher, they’d fallen into a cycle of underachievement, particularly in regards to Fisher’s offensive scheme — which struggled. With Elko on Fisher’s staff, the Aggies went 34-14 in four years. In the last two without him, they went 12-12.

Elko is Texas A&M’s first defensive head coach since the Aggies fired R.C. Slocum, the winningest head coach in school history, in 2002. Elko stopped to shake hands with Slocum, who Bjork said was a resource during the search along with multiple former A&M players, after his introductory speech to fans on his way to Monday’s news conference.

Elko believes a defensive coach can instill a blue-collar work ethic, but he said the “million-dollar question” will be how his offense looks, citing the recent trends among national championship programs like Alabama or Georgia.

“There’s a toughness that’s built within the program that obviously has to do with defense,” Elko said. “I think every one of those teams at some point in the season has had to dig deep on defense and find a way to win a really important game, but I think all of those teams have also been explosive on offense with really talented quarterback play. I do think there’s a blue-collar toughness that comes from having a great defense that stands the test of time. But if you can’t score points, you won’t win games enough to be where we want to be.”

Bjork said his search process included discussions with several former A&M players, including Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who told Bjork that the Aggies needed to be “an intimidating bully.”

“He actually had another adjective, but I can’t say that,” Bjork said, adding that he found that powerful coming from an offensive player.

Elko arrived in College Station about 2 a.m. on Monday after a weekend of rumors linking Kentucky coach Mark Stoops to the Aggies job before the final selection of Elko. Bjork said that A&M’s process included conversations with about 30 coaches, including a final group of “more than five” on Saturday, so there were still a lot of moving parts.

“We wanted to make sure that we engaged with our final group of candidates as long as possible,” Bjork said. “So I don’t know how all of that got out. I respect Coach Stoops. He’s been in the SEC a long time. … The process was fluid until the very end, but that’s why we had to get it right. I think the process yielded the right result. And that’s why we’re here today.”

Elko said his wife and three children still have several ties in the area from their four-year stint in College Station, and got emotional talking about the sacrifices his family has made chasing his dreams, beginning with his first coordinator job at the Merchant Marine Academy in 2001 to now, his chance to become the head coach of an SEC program that Elko thinks can win a national championship.

“From the moment I came down here back in 2018, I’ve been blown away by this place,” Elko said. “[It’s] resourced as the premier football program in the country, supported by the 12th Man, the absolute best fan base in the country.”

Elko said he knows the talk about Texas A&M has always been about unfulfilled potential since it hasn’t won a conference title since 1998 or a national title since 1939, but he feels like he has the blueprint to change that.

“We’ve got to fulfill that potential,” Elko said. “I think that happens with work and I think that was the message I sent to the players. That was the message I tried to deliver to the crowd. We can’t just say we want to do something. We can’t just say we want to arrive somewhere. We’ve got to be committed to all the work that it’s going to take from today until we kick off next September.”

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