Friedlander: Duke football needs to find its Jon Scheyer. Could Steve Spurrier Jr. be that guy?
In baseball, it’s said that momentum is only as good as long as the next day’s starting pitcher.
When it comes to college football, a coach’s word is only as good as, well, the next day.
Or at the very least, until somebody comes along with a better offer.
It’s a reality that has hit home again, this time at Duke, with Sunday’s news that Mike Elko has decided to leave after 2 seasons to take the job at Texas A&M.
Elko spent 4 seasons with the Aggies as Jimbo Fisher’s defensive coordinator before Duke hired him in December 2021.
Despite being one of the most prominently mentioned candidates for the position since Fisher’s dismissal 2 weeks ago, Elko reportedly told Duke athletic director Nina King as recently as Thursday of his intention to remain with the Blue Devils in 2024.
Maybe he only meant that he wasn’t planning to leave for the job at Michigan State, which was subsequently filled by Oregon State’s Jonathan Smith.
Because only 2 days later, less than 24 hours after coaching the Blue Devils to a 30-19 win and not long after the Aggies’ flirtation with Kentucky’s Mark Stoops fell through on Saturday, he was packing his bags for a return to College Station.
Elko’s decision to leave, though surprising because of its timing, is hardly a surprise.
This isn’t Duke basketball, after all.
It’s not a legacy position handed down from a mentor to a carefully groomed heir apparent as it was when Mike Krzyzewski passed the torch to former player and assistant Jon Scheyer 2 seasons ago.
Coaching the Blue Devils in football is either a stepping stone, at it has become for Elko – whose name began popping up for virtually every Power 5 opening almost immediately after leading his team to 9 wins and earning ACC Coach of the Year honors in his rookie season – or as the final stop at the end of a career as it was for his predecessor David Cutcliffe.
So which way do the Blue Devils go now?
Whoever it ends up being, it’s a must that the new coach is fully aware of the challenges – academically and competitively – that he’ll face at a small, private school such as Duke.
The ideal scenario would be to find a young coach willing to plant roots, build a program and leave a lasting legacy at the school. Either that or someone who like Elko has put in his dues as a career assistant and is looking for just the right fit for his first head coaching opportunity.
Someone like, say, Steve Spurrier Jr.?
The symmetry would be perfect.
Duke, after all, gave his Hall of Fame father his first big break in the coaching profession in 1987. And the Ol’ Ball Coach has never forgotten it.
Spurrier Sr. famously repaid the Blue Devils for the opportunity by including them on his preseason top 25 ballot every year – regardless of how good or bad they were projected to be – after climbing up the ladder to higher-profile jobs at Florida and South Carolina.
He received a warm welcome from the crowd when he returned to Wallace Wade Stadium for this year’s season-opening upset of Clemson.
𝗖𝗢𝗔𝗖𝗛𝗜𝗡𝗚 𝗣𝗥𝗢𝗙𝗜𝗟𝗘: Steve Spurrier Jr.
➖ Outside WRs coach
➖ College WR at Duke
➖ Coached in the NFL
➖ Won a National Championship
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) April 15, 2020
Spurrier Jr. has strong ties to Duke as well, having played wide receiver for the Blue Devils from 1989-93 and earning his undergraduate degree from the school. He also has a solid coaching resume worthy of his own opportunity to become a Head Ball Coach.
He’s served as an assistant to his dad at South Carolina, worked under Mike Leach at Washington State and Mississippi State, and is currently the offensive coordinator at Tulsa.
The Spurrier name would be a plus both for retaining the talent Elko has already assembled and in future recruiting and his familiarity with the school and its program would help in smoothing the transition to a new staff. There’s also a chance that at age 52, he’d be inclined to stick around longer than the 3 seasons his namesake did.
Or worse, the 2 years it took for Elko to seek greener pastures.
That’s green, as in the financial windfall he’s about to receive from his new employer.
Among the other potential candidates to replace Elko are Ohio State defensive coordinator and one-time Duke assistant Jim Knowles, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett – a finalist for the job the last time it came open – or a Cutcliffe-like veteran such as James Madison’s Curt Cignetti.
King could just as easily go in the opposite direction and turn to a young up-and-comer like Jamey Chadwell of undefeated Liberty.
Whomever she hires, she’d be wise to keep a stack of resumes in her top drawer for future use.
Because at Duke, a place at which football coaching careers either go to blossom or die, she’s probably going to need them again sooner rather than later.