When a couple of Duke football players were twenty minutes late for then-new head coach Mike Elko’s first conditioning session two years ago, they were introduced to something he called an “accountability” workout. So grueling were the sprints, drills, and assorted other tortures they endured that tardiness wasn’t an issue for the rest of the season.

“Like, wild,” Elko told the Athletic earlier this year. “It just caught root that quick.”

Duke center Jacob Monk remembered his first telephone conversation with the coach.

“Do you love football?” Elko asked.

“Yes, sir,” Monk told him.

“We’ll see how much everyone loves football,” Elko replied.

Monk thought about that conversation when Elko introduced “Spartan Fridays” to the Duke training regimen. Included in the hours-long conditioning sessions were a hundred yards of lunges while carrying a teammate.

He also instilled in Duke football structure, accountability, and a clear vision—qualities college football fans hadn’t always expected from a so-called basketball school. His conditioning and weight training programs tested every player in ways large and small.

In return for his players’ dedication, Elko listened when they asked for better living facilities, a spiffier locker room, better meals, and even golf carts to get them from morning practices to class when schedules were tight. He was a hard-ass with a heart.

“No matter if you’re going through a walk-through, or you’re going out to practice and it’s one of the hottest days of the year, Coach Elko will make you the best version of yourself,” Duke quarterback Riley Leonard told reporters at media day in 2023.

Or, as Duke team captain DeWayne Carter put it: “He’s very transparent, keeps it very simple. You talk about the meat and potatoes, that is him. He’s the epitome of that.”

Elko’s way worked at Duke. In two seasons, he became just the second head coach to lead the Blue Devils to back-to-back bowl appearances. Duke won thirteen of Elko’s first seventeen games in 2022 and 2023 and was up to number sixteen in the Associated Press Top 25 before this year’s campaign was undone by a string of close losses and key injuries.

On Monday, Elko was introduced as Texas A&M’s new head football coach. He’s not the rock star hire some prominent Aggies wanted. Instead, he’s a solid, no-nonsense ball coach who believes in a set of core principles that could help the Aggies transform all those great recruiting classes into winning teams. He may be exactly what Texas A&M needs for a program that, despite its myriad recruiting and fund-raising advantages, hasn’t won a conference championship this century.

Elko was hired two weeks after former coach Jimbo Fisher was fired, and at the end of a wild weekend in which the Aggie jokes once more wrote themselves. A&M was on the verge of hiring Kentucky coach Mark Stoops when a rebellion on social media—seriously, social media?—seemed to influence the A&M Board of Regents and force a pivot by athletic director Ross Bjork.

In the end, Bjork and the regents got it right. The 46-year-old Elko agreed to a six-year, $42 million deal despite the school still owing Jimbo $77 million over the next eight years. He’ll take over a program blessed with some of the country’s deepest pockets, best facilities, most passionate fans, and highest expectations. College Station is also located in the heart of a deep reservoir of elite high school talent.

But something has been missing from Aggie football. Discipline? Absolutely. Focus? No question. Over the last two seasons, in games decided by eight points or less, A&M has lost eight straight, going back to an October 8, 2022, defeat against Alabama. It has not won a true road game in more than two years. Considering that Fisher’s last four recruiting classes were ranked fourteenth, first, seventh, and sixth in the nation by Rivals.com, the Aggies have become a case study in underachieving.

Because of that talent—and an incoming 2024 class currently ranked eighth—Elko’s job is not to rebuild the program, and with the University of Texas joining the Aggies in the Southeastern Conference next year, Elko will have no honeymoon period. His challenge will be to prevent a mass exodus of Fisher’s recruits via the transfer portal, and on Monday he went to work solidifying his roster. “He let us know first day what he expects from us, and he didn’t sugarcoat anything,” A&M quarterback Jaylen Henderson said. “As players, we also want a players’ coach, and we got that vibe immediately, as soon as he talked to us.”

Elko knows it’ll be a process, with the swirl of transfer options and NIL offers. “They got to know who you are,” he said Monday at his Texas A&M introductory press conference. “They got to know that you know who they are as young men, and they got to believe in what you’re selling and what you’re all about.”

“This is a relationship era,” he went on. “And that part of this is really important. That starts this week.”

A&M fans got to know Elko during the four seasons he spent as Fisher’s defensive coordinator between 2018 and 2021. Because he recruited some of the players he’s now coaching, Elko is hoping for a smooth transition. “There’s not many times when you go into a first team meeting and fifty of the guys come up and give you a big hug,” he said.

The Aggies were 34–14 during Elko’s four seasons as defensive coordinator under Fisher, and he constructed one of the country’s top defensive units. In Elko’s final season before taking the Duke job, A&M ranked third in the nation in total defense. On Monday, he said: “I do think there is a blue-collar toughness that comes with 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.”

He articulated a simple vision for the program while addressing a rowdy group of cheering Aggies at Kyle Field’s Hall of Champions. “I’m back where I belong,” he said. “We are going to build the premier football program in the country. . . . We will become the absolute best version of ourself as quickly as possible because the best version of Texas A&M football wins the national championship.”

Elko certainly isn’t the first college football lifer to say that, but if he can become the coach who helps the Aggies live up to that potential, he’ll be a legend in College Station.