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Notre Dame Football: Who’s To Blame in Mike Elko’s Split with the Irish?

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Negotiation experts opine on which side made the right moves.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Boston College Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

When Mike Elko shocked the Notre Dame Fighting Irish by leaving his defensive coordinator position after just one year, fans drew distinct battle lines.

Elko, who left for Texas A&M on Thursday, was a Machiavellian figure to some. Others blamed university tightwads, who sat on a $11.8 billion endowment, but would not part with $300,000 to keep someone they considered a once-in-a-generation talent.

Although negotiations are, by their nature, known only to a few principal actors, the South Bend Tribune revealed a small, but important, detail that has put Elko in a less favorable light.

The Tribune reported Elko verbally agreed to a counteroffer from Notre Dame which would have made him one of the 10 highest paid coordinators in football — and the most compensated Irish assistant ever.

Elko broke that alleged vow when he accepted the Aggies’ counteroffer for additional money, reportedly $2 million annually.

“It may not be illegal. It may not be, in his mind, wrong. But what he’s done is unethical,” said Frank Zaccanelli, a former co-owner, president and general manager for the Dallas Mavericks.

Zaccanelli has negotiated employee contracts for decades, including coaxing Don Nelson out of retirement to be the GM/coach of the Mavericks. (That worked out well.) He understands the tenuousness of deals, but credited Notre Dame for doing “the right thing.”

“They sat him down and said, ‘OK. Maybe we missed this. We’re going to give you even more money. We want you to stay. We think you’re a great employee,’” he said in a phone interview Monday. “If the employee says, ‘Yes. I accept. I’m going to stay,’ then that’s the end of it. If the employee went back and took it to another round, I would say that the employee is not being trustworthy and that would be an ex-employee in one of my operations.”

Tiffani Murray, a HR strategist and career consultant, said she’d advise a client against making a verbal promise he did not intend to keep. But, she added, Notre Dame should not have been surprised that Elko brought the university’s counteroffer back to College Station.

“Elko just showed that ‘money talks’ and this is as American as apple pie,” she said in an e-mail interview Saturday.

Denise Dudley, who assists North American companies with salary negotiations, said she believes Elko came back to the table one too many times.

“Negotiations really must be a win-win, or things will go terribly wrong, fairly quickly,” Dudley said in an e-mail Monday. “When there’s too great of a divide between the numbers — what Elko wanted and what Notre Dame thought he was worth — it’s just not going to work. Someone will end up unhappy. There’s a possibility that either Elko or ND (or both parties) sensed that rift could never been joined, and it was better to move on.”

Murray said Notre Dame likely felt it was facing a diminishing return.

“Organizations tend to fight harder to keep employees who are more entrenched, more knowledgable of the operations and when other employees may be impacted by this individual leaving, potentially causing a mass exodus,” she said.

Even as Notre Dame was extending a counteroffer, university officials had to realize that Elko was signaling a willingness to leave soon.

“If you are going to give an employee a significant raise just to have them jump ship before you’ve seen a return on investment on the raise, it may be best to let them go,” Murray added.

Notre Dame also had other employees to consider, reminded Calum Coburn, director of the Sydney-based Negotiations Experts.

“One way to erode your endowment is to jump feet first into a price war,” he said in an e-mail interview Sunday. “If Notre Dame were to match Texas A&M’s (second) offer, the rest of the team would be more ambitious.”

Murray doesn’t believe the way Elko handled his negotiation will impact future contract talks — unless he disappoints.

“If he comes in winning ball games, all of this will be forgotten in a football season,” she said.

From Zaccanelli’s perspective, he finds fault with Texas A&M.

“If I was the other employer and he came to me a second time, that’d be game over,” said Zaccanelli, unswayed that Elko was highly prized among college coordinators. “It’s obvious now this guy is in the auction business. And if Notre Dame can’t trust you, how the hell am I going to trust you?”