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Mike Elko: Things I Know

Jan. 28, 2017

It’s about what this place offers you in terms of the ability to coach the best student-athletes in the country. Compete at the highest level and still not sacrifice the quality of the kids you are coaching. There’s a focus level about the Notre Dame kid that I respect and enjoy being a part of. When you are a father and have kids, you want your kids to be around the Notre Dame players—that played a big role for me (his children are ages 12, 9 and 7). You want your children around people who understand life and not just football.

My grandmother was a huge Notre Dame fan her whole life. As I started getting into coaching the running joke in the family was that Grandma’s favorite team was Notre Dame and whoever I was coaching for. She would have the Notre Dame games and the Wake Forest games simultaneously on the computer and the television in the living room. She passed away last summer and they buried her with a blanket on top of the casket that was half Notre Dame and half Wake Forest.

It’s important for us not to focus backwards—we’re going to focus forward. We are who we are, we know what we want to do–as fast as we can get that vision to the kids and get them to understand what we want, what we want a Notre Dame defense to look like and what our expectations are. There’s not a lot that comes from comparing past and present. It’s about establishing a direction of where we want this thing to go.

When you go through the process as a coordinator of potentially looking at a job you might take, the shared vision is a big part of it. What does the head coach want and does it align with what I want? Here’s what I’m trying to get accomplished and is he going to give me the latitude to get it accomplished in his program? That plays a big role and it was real important to me because I had been with Coach (Dave) Clawson for eight consecutive years. As you make that branch-off jump you want to be in an environment where you can continue to have that success.

It’s a whirlwind right now—but the first thing is relationships. If you want to lead these guys you have to get in with them and get to know them and get to know who they are as people. That part has already started and will continue. Then we have to get the staff coached up in terms of the defense so the staff is familiar with how we coach it and how we do it. Then we go out and implement it with these young men and get them going. There will be a little big of a transient process as we get a feel for who they are and what their skills sets are and what they are capable of. You want to leave some of that for spring ball and watch them play in this system and not hold too much judgment on who they’ve been and what they’ve been in the past. I’ve watched enough film to know there’s enough talent here to be successful and that’s all I need to know. We’ll figure the rest of it out.

Recruiting has been great because everybody knows Notre Dame—it’s a national brand. Experiencing it and feeling it is still a different thing. You can walk into any high school anywhere in the country and be recognized as Notre Dame. Kids and parents are going to be attracted to that. Everybody understands what this place is and what this place offers. That gets your foot in the door. It gives you an opportunity to recruit the best across the country.

I want people to say that the Notre Dame defense will play exceptionally hard, with a lot of passion and energy. They are going to be aggressive and they are going to attack people. I think people will enjoy watching that. Schematically you are going go see kids put in positions to be successful. We’ll do a really good job of evaluating what kids can do and accentuate what they are good at. That will be your broad scope picture of Notre Dame football. The specific schematics are far less important than the big scope fundamentals. If we look like a group that’s playing hard and having fun playing and being aggressive, we’ll be successful regardless of the actual scheme.

Dave Clawson (current Wake Forest head coach) has played the biggest role in my career. He gave me my first shot and nurtured me through the early stages of growth. The defensive line coach at Wake Forest Dave Cohen hired me to be a coordinator for the first time and he gave me that first opportunity. He did a tremendous job in terms of giving me direction on how to organize and how to lead. Those two have been the most influential.

It comes back to this—do you think there’s enough talent to be successful? Yes. Do you feel like you’ve got a group of kids that will take to what you’re coaching? Yes. Do you have kids that are willing to work at it? Yes. So then let’s go. Point me in the right direction. When you take over a program and get scared is when kids aren’t coming up to talk to you – they don’t want to meet you and don’t want to spend time with you and there’s not that sense of energy. I’ve had kids texting me since the day I got hired. Hey, coach, when can we meet? When can we go over the defense? When can we get to work? So there’s that passion in this program to be successful, and as long as that’s there . . .

–Edited by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director