‘A whirlwind of epic proportion’: Texas A&M football coach Mike Elko chats with ESPN’s Pete Thamel

Back in 1998, 21-year-old Mike Elko was finishing his playing career as a safety for Penn University of the Ivy League.

That same year, the Texas A&M football team won the Big 12 Championship led by R.C. Slocum. 26 years later, Elko is head coach of the Aggies, Slocum is interim director of athletics and Texas A&M hasn’t won a conference title since.

The Aggies joined the SEC in 2012 and have yet to appear in a conference championship game. In 2020, Texas A&M finished No. 5 in the nation and was left on the outside looking in at the College Football Playoff with Jimbo Fisher at the helm and Elko as defensive coordinator.

Last month, Elko sat down for an extensive Q&A with ESPN college football senior writer & insider Pete Thamel. Junior starting quarterback Conner Weigman, new offensive coordinator & quarterback coach Collin Klein and Notre Dame senior QB Riley Leonard were among the topics of discussion.

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Just getting started

USA Today Sports
USA Today Sports

Question: “What have the first few months been like?”

Answer: “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.”

Building a foundation

Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports
Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

Q: “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?”

A: “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.”

Previous experience at A&M

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Q: “What lessons do you take from your last stint here?”

A: “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.”


Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports
Jaylynn Nash-USA TODAY Sports

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

A: “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.”

Lessons from Duke

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Q: “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.”

A: “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-making. 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.”

Established QB Conner Weigman

Sep 23, 2023; College Station, Texas; Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Conner Weigman (15) looks to throw the ball during the second quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Kyle Field. Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports
Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

Q: “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.”

A: “So Conner’s unique, so I actually recruited the Cypress 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.”

New OC & QB coach Collin Klein

Peter Aiken-Getty Images
Peter Aiken-Getty Images

Q: “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?”

A: “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.”

Building an elite SEC roster

Dec 4, 2021; Atlanta, GA; Detailed view of the SEC logo on the field before the SEC championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Q: “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.”

A: “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.”

Favorite College Station eats

Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

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

A: “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.”

Aggieland potential

Lance King-Getty Images
Lance King-Getty Images

Q: “Lot of new-coach optimism here. What can this place become?”

A: “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.”

Familiar opposition

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

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

A: “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. 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.”

Story originally appeared on Aggies Wire