In his 23 seasons as the head football coach at the University of Pennsylvania, Al Bagnoli saw every kind of smart. He coached lawyers and entrepreneurs, doctors and engineers, Wall Street traders and pensive philosophers.
Mike Elko was different.
“He stuck out, just because of his football IQ,” Bagnoli said of Elko, Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator, who played safety at the Ivy League institution from 1996 to 1999.
“We have a lot of academically smart kids — brilliant kids. But the football side of it really came naturally to Mike, and he really understood conceptually things that most college players don’t. He was a unique commodity.”
But in coaching, even unique commodities start on the ground floor. When Elko graduated from Penn and sought to begin his career as a graduate assistant at Stony Brook University in 1999, Stony Brook head coach Sam Kornhauser called Bagnoli to ask about his former safety.
The answers were difficult to digest.
“I said to Al, who I knew very well, ‘Tell me a little bit about Mike,’” Kornhauser recalled this week. “He said, ‘He’s the smartest football player that we’ve ever had at the University of Pennsylvania.’”
Pause. Let that sink in.
“I said, ‘Wait a second. This is the University of Pennsylvania. You’ve been head coach for years, and he’s the smartest football player you ever had?’
“He said, ‘No question about it.’”
It’d be easy, considering the breadth of his recommendation, to assume Bagnoli’s words were dripping with exaggeration.
To that, he says this.
“I was being very honest with him,” Bagnoli, now the head coach at Columbia University, said on Friday. “I wasn’t embellishing it. I wasn’t just trying to make sure we placed him. I was being honest, because I think as coaches, we all have a responsibility when we place people that we’re accurate.
“That’s the way I honestly felt. This kid was unique in his ability to look at the big picture of things and the conceptual part of things and how schematically things fit. Things always made sense to Mike and they were always very clear to him.”
Once Elko started coaching the linebackers at Stony Brook, Kornhauser learned exactly what Bagnoli meant.
“He had to learn a new defense, and he had to learn a new position and how to coach that,” Kornhauser said. “He was meticulous. He was so sharp.
“I remember having these discussions with him on how to try to almost dumb it down a little bit. He was bringing so much from a coaching point of view, so many tips, so many pointers, so much of what he experienced, what he thought, what he felt.
“I remember having these talks with him and saying, ‘OK, we can tone this down a little bit.’ He was so sharp that he wanted to give you all the information today.”
Elko’s intelligence, mixed with his enthusiasm, created a chain reaction. He coached. He recruited. He slept, then did it again.
“When you’re a young guy, you’re a graduate assistant,” Kornhauser explained. “So you’re getting tuition paid for and you’re getting a couple thousand bucks a year working 72 hours a week. It’s a hard job, and after a year or two or three, young guys would always come to me and say, ‘Well, what should I do? I’m not making any money. Should I continue this? Should I get out?’
“We had three young guys (Elko included), and they all coached defense, and they were all sponges. Whenever we had the opportunity to go visit another staff, those three guys were first in line. ‘Let’s go. Let’s get up at six in the morning and go visit the guys at this school. We won’t get back here until midnight but we’re going to spend all day in coaches offices and talk to them about football and watch film.’
“As a young coach, that’s what I wanted to do. You had to network. You had to learn. You had to talk to people. You had to be exposed to football 24/7.”
Elko was, and he still is. On Thursday, the now 39-year-old coach agreed to become the next defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
But 16 years before he made that coaching move, he made another one — back to his alma mater.
“I knew he had a lot of talent. I knew that right away,” Kornhauser said. “As soon as the (1999 season) ended, Al Bagnoli called me and said, ‘By the way Sam, we have a job here at the University of Pennsylvania, and we’re going to hire him back.’”
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Bagnoli added. “I had the good fortune of recruiting him and he played for me for four years, so I saw it firsthand — the things that he understood and the conversations you would have and the questions he would ask.
“They were a lot different kind of questions — they were much deeper, they were big picture stuff. For us to get him back, it made all the sense in the world.”
So did Elko’s ascent. In the 15 years since he left his alma mater, Elko has coached at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Fordham, Richmond, Hofstra, Bowling Green, and, most recently, Wake Forest. He has spent the last 11 seasons as a collegiate defensive coordinator, developing players and frustrating opponents everywhere he’s been.
Back where it all started, Bagnoli and Kornhauser aren’t surprised.
“We used to kid him. ‘Are you ever going to stay someplace?’” Bagnoli said with a booming laugh. “He’s getting all these promotions and everybody else is just looking at him, like, ‘What’s going on here?’ But that was Mike.
“Professionally, people gravitated to him because they saw those professional characteristics. They saw the intelligence and they saw the approach. It’s a pretty nice package.”
That’s the package Elko brings to Notre Dame.