SOUTH BEND — Mike Elston says he’s found the perfect home in the collegiate, spiritually-engaging, football-crazy city of South Bend as a defensive assistant and key recruiter for the Fighting Irish.
Elston, one of the driving forces behind St. Marys’ powerhouse football teams of the early 1990s and an all-Ohioan in football, basketball and track for the Roughriders, enters his third season as the defensive line coach at Notre Dame this fall.
A former Michigan man has found Notre Dame to his liking.
“The move has been perfect for me and my family,” Elston said. “To be involved in a place with a faith-based education, one of the great academic schools in the country, I feel privileged.”
“Walking around with that ND on your chest is something special,” Elston said.
Elston, a 1993 Memorial High School grad, went to Michigan and played for the Wolverines before getting into coaching as a grad assistant during the Wolverines’ 1997 national championship season. Elston got his first full-time gig at Eastern Michigan and then hitched his wagon to rising coach and fire-breathing offensive guru Brian Kelly at Central Michigan of the Mid-American Conference.
It’s been a rapid rise for Kelly and Elston since. Kelly took the job at Cincinnati and quickly turned the mediocre Bearcats into a Big East power. Elston moved up to assistant head coach while in the Queen City.
Kelly brought along Elston for the move to South Bend two years ago and, along with the hire of Bob Diaco as the defensive coordinator, the defense has responded.
Notre Dame has gone from one of the poorest defensive teams in the nation to that side of the ball being the Irish’s strength.
“When we got here, Notre Dame was one of the worst tackling teams in the country,” Elston said. “We had to work on fundamentals. We still work an hour every day of practice on the fundamentals of tackling."
The Irish allowed 18 points a game in 2011 — 25th best in the nation and physically the Notre Dame defense now has the type of big, fast NFL bodies on the front seven that the Irish lacked up front before their arrival.
Elston has been a major part of that, serving as the recruiting coordinator two years ago and having his hand in much of the recuriting in the midwest and in Florida for the Irish.
“Recruiting is such a big part of this job,” Elston said. “At Notre Dame, we recruit nationally."
Add in recruiting for a school with higher academic standards for its recruits than most of the schools the Irish are bumping up against and Elston said Notre Dame coaches go the extra mile to keep their classes among the best in the nation.
“It’s about building a relationship,” Elston said. “When a player compares the advantages and weaknesses of each school, there are going to be a lot of similarities between the schools, so it comes down to the relationship you have built.”
As the recruiting climate in the midwest receives extra scrutiny after new Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer scooped up recruits who had already committed to other schools and Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema publicly complained, Elston said it’s a fine balance between attracting players to a school without overpromising playing time.
“You can’t just get wrapped up in sell, sell, sell,” Elston said. “At some point you have to deliver all the stuff you’ve been selling on the program."
Elston said in an online interview on UND.com following signing day that Notre Dame leaves the door open for recruits to come to the schol after they’ve verballed with other schools, but the Irish do not contact the recruit once a verbal is given to another program.
Notre Dame will open the college football season in 2012 with a game against Navy in Dublin, Ireland. A man of Irish descent, Elston said it’s exciting to play in Ireland even if the logistics of the game are a nightmare for a football coach.
“As a coach, flying over on a Wednesday and then flying back and getting ready for a game the next week is tough,” Elston said. “But this will be my first time away from (North America). I’ve never flown overseas. For a lot of these guys on the team it will be a great experience. For a lot of them, the first time they get on a plane for a game at Notre Dame, it’s the first time they’ve ever flown. It will be exciting.”
Elston had one of St. Marys Memorial's more decorated athletic careers, helping the Roughriders seal the 1990 state championship against DeSales with an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown as a sophomore. He played on the 1992 state title team before heading to Michigan to play outside linebacker for the Wolverines.
Elston looks back on the years at St. Marys fondly, even if he says they went by so fast that he wished he had sopped up more knowledge from his coaches.
“I wouldn’t trade my four years at St. Marys for any other high school experience,” Elston said. “I do wish I had gotten to pick the brains of Skip Baughman, Bob Priddy and Denny Vossler and all those guys. If I had known I was going to become a football coach, I would’ve picked their brains. But I didn’t. I was so busy being in football, basketball and track that it just went by so fast.”
“I don’t get back to St. Marys as much as I’d like, but I still love going back,” Elston said.
Elston is married to Beth and has three daughters, Olivia, Sophia and Isabella.