Catching up with new Texas A&M football coach Mike Elko

Elko on Aggies' goal to build best program in football (3:09)

Mike Elko chats with "SEC Now" on national signing day and details his vision for Texas A&M while sharing a piece of his sales pitch to recruits. (3:09)

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- As Mike Elko settles in at Texas A&M, he's familiar with all of the untapped potential. He saw the promise as the Aggies' defensive coordinator on an Orange Bowl-winning team in 2020, and he has seen up close why unlocking that full potential remains tantalizing.

Not only has Texas A&M never reached the College Football Playoff, it has not won a conference title since 1998. It has failed to reach the SEC championship game since joining the conference in 2012.

In the wake of Elko's remarkable revival of Duke in his two seasons there (17-9 after the team went 5-18 in the two years before his arrival), this question looms over College Station: Can Elko's experience with both the power and the flaws of Texas A&M help unlock the potential?

He sat down with ESPN last month to discuss his tenure so far.

ESPN: What have the first few months been like?

Elko: A whirlwind of epic proportion. I don't know that you can describe taking a job on the day that the portal window opens, two weeks before signing day with no staff, right? Trying to put all of that together into a puzzle, right? So yeah, I mean, it's a lot, and you've got to be really patient and put it together the way you believe in and get it going where you want it to go.

ESPN: If you look back at the last two coaches at Texas A&M, there's a case that neither built a solid foundation. There have been bursts of momentum but not a lot of consistency. What is it going to take to build a foundation here and go from there?

Elko: I think it starts with good people. That's where every foundational program starts, is getting the right people, and so it starts with the right people on this floor of coaching. It starts with the right people in this building from a support staff, analytical role from the people in your strength and the conditioning department, and then you've got to build culture within your locker room. I think that's a foundation that a lot of people lose sight of, right? This place has tremendous facility foundation, but within that, you still have to build a foundational core of who your program is going to be about.

ESPN: What lessons do you take from your last stint here?

Elko: The unique spot that I have sitting here for four years [as defensive coordinator] is I know all of the reasons why this place can win a national championship, and then I probably know some of the reasons why we failed, which I think gives me a unique perspective coming in. I come in with a lot more knowledge of what Texas A&M is all about. That can only help, and I just think we've got to be intelligent about how we go about building this place because it's a place where it has high expectations and you have to win now for sure, but you've got to still focus on building it in a way that allows you to sustain the success that you have for long periods of time.

ESPN: We are a long way from kickoff, but what can we expect from Texas A&M this year?

Elko: I think you're going to see a team that's willing to play for each other and play for this university. I think you're going to see a team that plays with an awful lot of grit and toughness. I think those have been what you've seen from any defense that I've coached in the last two years at Duke. It's certainly what you saw, and I think we're going to go to work to make that the product, and I think our fans are going to love coming out and supporting this team and how they conduct themselves and how they go about playing game.

ESPN: How much did you learn in those two years at Duke? You have been at a lot of places, obviously, and a lot of different types of places, but there's nothing like being in the chair.

Elko: You just learn how to be the CEO of the football program. You can do all the preparation you want, until you get in the chair and you feel what it's really like to have everything around the program involved in the decision-makings. You have to take part of understanding that you're responsible for everything from overseeing ticket sales to everything. You got to have your hand in every piece of the program. You can't quantify that when you're a defensive coordinator. And so I think just getting an understanding of what it all looks like, how to put it all together. We certainly had a lot of success at Duke, but we certainly look back at two years and say there's a lot of areas we could have done it better and we could have fixed some things or done some things different.

ESPN: You talked a little bit about some of the intangibles of what you want in your identity. What about on the field? You have an established quarterback in Conner Weigman, which is a big piece of that whole thing.

Elko: So Conner's unique, so I actually recruited the Cypress (Texas) area, which is where Conner comes from. And then obviously everybody knows Conner was a phenomenal baseball player from out of high school, and he was always in the same organization as my son [who plays at Richmond]. And as the years went on, Michael actually kind of played with him a couple of times towards the end of the career, but it was just always a name. He always knew Conner. Conner was a kid that kind of was that big fish in Texas on the baseball field and on the football field. So it's come full circle to get a chance to coach him for finally a year or two.

ESPN: One of your big gets is Collin Klein as offensive coordinator. Obviously he and Conner are going to be linked together at the hip this next year. Again, it's very early, but what's that been like so far?

Elko: I think first, it's having Collin Klein, who is one of the brightest young minds in all of college football right now, and certainly a guy that played the position in an extremely high level and did it from a toughness standpoint at an extremely high level. And I think all of that commands a certain level of respect. And so you announced Collin as the OC and all of a sudden Conner's up here 12 hours later and he wants to talk to him. And so you see those guys starting to meet and formulate those relationships. And we also have two other quarterbacks, Jaylen Henderson and Marcel Reed, who are also very talented and we started seeing those guys come around. And so that [quarterback] room means everything, right? Everybody knows this, from NFL to college football. Your ability to develop and play at a high level at quarterback is what helps win and lose football games. I think that's going in a really good direction.

ESPN: A lot has been made about who has left this offseason. But one thing that was clear in the recruitment of a lot of those guys are the resources that are here. Walk me through a little bit of what you think is available here for you to potentially build an elite SEC roster.

Elko: I think you look at a place that's spent almost a billion dollars in facilities renovations in the last 10 years. I think you look at a place that sits in the most talent-rich state in the entire country, kind of right in between two of the most talent-producing cities in the entire country in Dallas and Houston. So I think you have everything that you could ever want and need to build a championship-level program. I think we just, I told this to our team when I met with them the first time, we know what we're capable of, but we also got to understand where we are and that there's a lot of work to get from where we are to where we're capable of being.

ESPN: This is familiar territory for the Elko crew. Where did you all go to eat when everyone came back?

Elko: First place we went to eat was the Walk-On's. We kind of sneaked into a back corner of Walk-On's and yeah, had a really good meal.

ESPN: Lot of new-coach optimism here. What can this place become?

Elko: I think in the modern day of college football, this is one of the places that has an opportunity to be at the top of the game, and there's not many places that have all of the foundation and haven't done it yet. And so I think to some degree there's places uniquely special and that somebody's going get in here, some group of players, some group of coaches, and do this right, really for the first time in the modern era of college football. I'm excited to be part of that for sure. And I think there's going to be a lot of people that buy into that story.

ESPN: Lot of folks will be paying attention right away with Notre Dame coming as the opener.

Elko: Obviously, all of the ironies that come into that. Both from my time at Notre Dame, and obviously there's a quarterback over there that I'm fairly familiar with. [Former Duke QB Riley Leonard transferred to Notre Dame this offseason.] But I think you come back to a place like this for those types of opportunities and those types of stages, and that'd obviously be a great opening game for us and certainly a challenge we look forward to.