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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- When Texas A&M hired Jimbo Fisher in 2017, the Aggies hoped to make a statement. The program gave him a dateless national championship plaque in expectation that he would lead it to the promised land. As Fisher exited his private jet as coach for the first time that December, he was greeted with a maroon carpet and military band serenade. He was handed one of the most eye-popping contracts in college football history before coaching a game. 

In Mike Elko, the Aggies have hired Fisher's foil. 

"My vision for the program is very simple," Elko said at his introductory press conference. "We are going to build the premier football program in the country. We are not going to talk about it anymore, we are going to be about it."

Elko arrived in Aggieland for the first time as part of Fisher's initial staff in 2018. With Elko in the program, Texas A&M went 34-13, including an Orange Bowl victory in 2020. That success landed Elko the Duke job, which he immediately turned into a nine-win debut in 2022. That was followed by a 7-5 campaign in 2023 that, although disappointing in some respects with the injury to QB Riley Leonard, still represented achievement in Durham, North Carolina. 

As such, bringing Elko back to College Station made all the sense in the world, but the process wasn't as cut and dry. He emerged from the morass following a kerfuffle over the weekend in which Kentucky coach Mark Stoops appeared to be Texas A&M's top target ... before he wasn't

Regardless, Elko remains a familiar choice. Aggie higher-ups are hoping it's the right one. 

Elko's contract is one of the most unique in the SEC. He'll earn a competitive base salary of $42 million over six years. The incentive numbers are off the charts, however. Elko will make a $1 million bonus for making the College Football Playoff. It extends to $1.5 million for winning the SEC or reaching the quarterfinals. A national championship rewards him with an exorbitant $3.5 million. 

If Elko reaches any of the postseason incentives, an extra year is automatically added onto his contract. In contrast, Fisher signed a 10-year, $75 million contract that was fully guaranteed. He was fired just two years into a 10-year, $95 million extension, leaving him more than $70 million in buyout money. 

"We wanted to be fair in the market, but we also wanted to say, 'Hey, look, I think the landscape can change where you actually have to earn things,'" Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said. "And if somebody believes in themselves, believes in their plan, they have the right approach, they'll earn it." 

If Elko is fired in the first three seasons, he will be owed 75% of the remaining money on his contract. If he's fired in the final three seasons, that number jumps to 80%. Elko has signed a memorandum of understanding, but will officially sign the contract after it is presented to Texas A&M's Board of Regents. 

Back to basics

Since 2000, Texas A&M has been focused on making a statement about its place in the world. In a much different time, Texas A&M poached Dennis Franchione from Alabama and Mike Sherman from the NFL, where he was an offensive coordinator. Later, Kevin Sumlin flew on the "SwagCopter" after Johnny Manziel brought Texas A&M's attention to new heights. And then there was Jimbo. 

To the contrary, Elko is a blue-collar throwback. The New Jersey native's first coordinator job was at the Division III Merchant Marine Academy before rising up through the Northeast and Midwestern coaching worlds. Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson brought him to FBS prominence before he landed at Notre Dame and later Texas A&M. 

Bjork acknowledged that he spoke to at least 25 coaches as part of the search, including at least five on Saturday alone. Ultimately, after the Stoops situation settled, Elko emerged as the leader. 

During a 9-1 campaign in 2020, the Aggies defense ranked No. 28 nationally in scoring defense under Elko, holding opponents to just 21.7 points per game. During this season at Duke, the Blue Devils held opponents to just 19.8 points per game. Duke went 16-9 over the past two seasons under Elko. Texas A&M went 12-12 in the same span under Fisher. 

"It's really hard when you have high expectations and come up short," Elko said. "As hard as that is for the fans and people who support the program, it's even harder for the kids who put in all of the work and the coaches who put in all of the work."

He continued, "Some of it is just recharging, providing a fresh perspective, giving them something to rekindle that fire, and give them something to believe in moving forward and holding them to that every step along the way." 

Don't think Elko is overlooking offense, though. Promises of an explosive, modern unit would be a direct contrast to the archaic systems of the Fisher era. Elko's $11 million assistant coach budget is smaller than the one Fisher enjoyed but still ranks among the best in college football. A star offensive coordinator will be a key hire. 

Elko represents a throwback to one of the most beloved Texas A&M coaches of all time. R.C. Slocum coached under Jackie Sherrill for seven seasons as defensive coordinator. In 1989, he was promoted to the full-time job and went on to lead Texas A&M to four conference championships in 14 years. The Aggies have not won a conference – or even a divisional – championship since he was fired in 2002. 

The blue-collar mentality with a modern approach neatly fits Texas A&M. The historically agricultural institution has built its identity through toughness and grit, largely in contrast to the glitzier University of Texas down the block in Austin, Texas. Slocum brought blue-collar, physical defenses to Texas A&M during his successful tenure. He left as the winningest coach in Texas A&M history. Elko made sure to stop and shake Slocum's hand on the way off the podium. 

Texas A&M just completed 84 years without winning a national championship, dating back to 1939. While no blank plaque is coming Elko's way, his contract structure leaves no doubt of the ultimate goals. 

"I just think when you look at what this program is capable of, what we've got to do is we've got to fulfill that potential, I think that happens with wok," Elko said. "We can't just say we want to arrive somewhere. We've got to be committed to all the work that it's going to take from today until we kick off next September of doing that."