Mike Elko 'still playing catch-up' after taking over at Texas A&M

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- On the eve of his first spring football game as Texas A&M's head coach, Mike Elko is just now catching his breath after what has been a whirlwind past four months.

"It's gone from maybe a ship going a hundred miles an hour in the middle of a tidal wave to just a ship going a hundred miles an hour," Elko joked Friday. "I think we've steadied our own structure. It does not feel nearly as rocky as it did when I got here, but you're still in a world where things are swirling around at an extremely fast pace and changing rapidly, and so to try and keep up with that, you're still playing catch-up."

A quick refresher: Elko went to sleep on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend last year with Texas A&M nowhere on his radar. But then all hell broke loose. Texas A&M's negotiations with Kentucky's Mark Stoops broke down. The Aggies turned their attention to Elko, who nearly decided to stay at Duke as the Texas A&M plane waited at the airport for several hours to bring him to College Station. All the while, the transfer portal was days away from opening.

A little more than a month later, the athletic director who hired Elko at Texas A&M, Ross Bjork, took the job at Ohio State, and former Nebraska All-American Trev Alberts left his alma mater to become Elko's boss at Texas A&M.

"Sounds like a lot, and it was," Elko said. "But I'm here because of what this place can become. The ceiling for Texas A&M if you get it right is a challenge I felt was worth taking because I've seen it at the highest of highs and know what that looks like relative to the rest of the college football landscape.

"We just have to find a way to consistently get there, and I think I know the place well enough to kind of create a vision and a path to do that."

Elko was Jimbo Fisher's defensive coordinator for four years at Texas A&M before taking the Duke head job in 2022. An Ivy League graduate at Penn, Elko has run the coaching gamut and seen it from all angles, from his time with Dave Clawson at Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake Forest to coaching at Notre Dame for a season under Brian Kelly and now at a place that just paid $77 million to Elko's former boss (Fisher) to go away.

What Alberts has seen this spring is a coach who's grounded and knows exactly what he signed up for in taking over at a school that has unlimited resources and a rabid fan base, but hasn't won a conference championship of any kind since 1998 and has never played in the SEC championship game.

"The thing about Mike is getting the right people in the right seats, and we go to work together with a little humility," Alberts said. "There are a lot of smart coaches. There are a lot of hardworking coaches. But when you put all the attributes together of intelligence, strategic vision, work ethic, discipline and humility, there's not a lot of them."

As Elko surveys his spring roster, he said the Aggies will continue to look to "add value" and not simply plug holes in the transfer portal, especially at the skill positions.

"Aside from the anomaly of a defense having eight first-rounders, that's where you win in this league, getting that group of elite skill players together," Elko said.

And while some bigger names from the highly ranked 2022 signing class left Texas A&M after this past season, Elko is much more excited about the players the Aggies gained or held on to as opposed to those they lost.

"From the time I got hired until the time the portal closed, I felt like we saved way more kids than we lost," Elko said. "I know that the public perception was focused on other things. But when I got here, there were a lot of kids who are going to start this fall for us that were on their way out the door and we were able to keep them and get them to buy into where we wanted this thing to go.

"So, if anything, it felt like an enormous win in terms of who left and who stayed from my perspective."

Among those: defensive linemen Shemar Turner and DJ Hicks, linebacker Taurean York and defensive backs Bryce Anderson and Tyreek Chappell. What's more, the Aggies were able to add the Big Ten's top pass-rusher from a year ago, Purdue transfer Nic Scourton.

From purely a football viewpoint, Elko never really doubted that Texas A&M was the right move. But he also has a family, and this will be his eighth first year with a coaching staff.

"I joked with somebody that has to be a record," he said.

Most important to Elko was that his family was on board with another move, and that's never easy.

"You wake up Sunday morning and all of a sudden now you're making a life decision that you had no anticipation you were going to make," Elko said. "It probably took the extent of that entire day before we as a family truly came to grips with this was the right thing for our future."

There's no debate in Aggieland what's expected in that future.

"I want a place where the ceiling is the national championship, and in order to have that, you need an extremely passionate fan base. There are things that come along with that, but I'll take it," Elko said. "I'll take the place where if we get this right and we do this right, we win the whole thing."