Mike Krzyzewski was 33 years old and finishing his first season at Duke in 1981 when a youngster fresh out of Texas Tech landed a coaching gig at tiny Clarendon College in the Texas Panhandle. Mark Adams was 24.

“I thought I was the next John Wooden,” Adams said last week. He paused, then delivered the punch line: “And I was the only one in the room that thought that.”

Forty-one years later, these two men, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and Mark Adams, now of Texas Tech, will face off in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday night in San Francisco. Both are among the most respected leaders in college basketball, and both are coaching teams at the top of the sport—but the routes they’ve taken to this point could not be more different. 

“He’s always been a mentor of mine, someone I looked up to,” Adams said of Krzyzewski. “Not only is he a great coach, but a great person. Just done so much for basketball. And he’s built a program which we all admire and respect. It’s just one team to the next, he’s got a dynasty he’s built. So our hat’s off to him.”

The number three seed Red Raiders (27–9) and number two seed Blue Devils (30–6) will combine for a matchup of nearly endless possibilities, one that makes sense only in the context of this wild crescendo of a tournament that has come to be known as March Madness. The game should also remind us why we love sports and why we love legends (some of them anyway) and, most of all, why we love a story as improbable as Mark Adams and Mike Krzyzewski crossing paths on college basketball’s biggest stage.

That Duke and Texas Tech are in the Sweet Sixteen is no surprise. Tech is here for the third straight season and its first under Adams, who took over as head coach after Chris Beard left for the University of Texas in the off-season. Krzyzewski, seeking his sixth national championship, is in the Sweet Sixteen for the twenty-sixth time in his 42 seasons at Duke.

Now 75, Krzyzewski plans to retire after this season. Given all that has surrounded Adams’s magical first season as Texas Tech’s head coach, ending Coach K’s career would be just another brick in the wall.

While these two men have had such different career arcs—Krzyzewski getting his big break at 32, Adams at 64—the Duke coach will note this number in Adams’s biography: 554.

That’s how many head coaching victories Adams had when Texas Tech promoted him to the top job last spring. That number will tell Krzyzewski all he needs to know about his counterpart. Coach K will immediately understand that even if Adams hasn’t been orchestrating Final Four runs for the past three decades, both men have spent their lives in and around gyms, leading existences based on recruiting and practices, on game tape and strategy, and on getting the most out of a group of young athletes who are just barely adults, year after year after year.

Nevermind that Adams’s 554 victories came at Clarendon College, Wayland Baptist University, West Texas A&M, the University of Texas–Pan American, and Howard College. At its essence, the job Krzyzewski did at Duke all those years was no different. He made more money, got more attention, and got to coach Team USA to a few gold medals along the way, but coaches know that coaching is coaching, no matter the venue.

Coach K has built his program with dozens of elite recruits, while Adams built a defensive juggernaut by supplementing his first Texas Tech roster with transfers from programs like UTEP (Bryson Williams), Oral Roberts (Kevin Obanor), Hampton (Davion Warren), and Winthrop (Adonis Arms).

Somehow, Adams has made the pieces fit.

“They’re men,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said Sunday after Tech beat his team 59–53 in the second round. “I mean, when you watch the center jump, our bodies compared to their bodies, whew. . . . And it kind of wears on you a little bit. It exhausts you a little bit.”

Krzyzewski and Adams know each other a bit, thanks to an appearance Adams made on Krzyzewski’s SiriusXM show, Basketball and Beyond With Coach K.

Theirs was more a conversation than an interview, with Adams saying: “I wish I could be interviewing you, and I get one thousand questions for you.” As the segment wrapped up, Krzyzewski said: “Like once we started talking, you forget you’re on the show. . . . I want to pick his brain. Like he’s a damn good coach, man.”

During his Wednesday press appearance, Krzyzewski further credited the long road Adams followed to this Sweet Sixteen matchup. “A lot of us have plane stops; he’s learned [the game] with bus stops,” he said. “And I respect the heck out of that, because when you do that for as long and as successful as he’s been, you do it—like, we make a lot of money, but when you’re at the bus stops you don’t make a lot of money—you better love what you do. So, it’s obvious that’s what he’s done, and he’s taken it to a really high level.”

One more thing that’s different about the two men is how fans first reacted to their respective hiring announcements. Few coaches have ever been more popular than Mark Adams is with the people who care about Texas Tech. Duke diehards needed longer to warm to Krzyzewski.

Adams is a product of the South Plains, a Texas Tech graduate who considers this his dream job. He’d been Beard’s trusted defensive guru, but when his boss left for Austin last April, Adams decided to stay at Texas Tech even though there was no guarantee he’d be promoted. “This is home, and I love Texas Tech,” Adams said. “The first three or four days, I was kind of on an island thinking, what am I going to do if I don’t get this job?”

Tech fans were sold even before Adams put together a storybook 2021–22 season that included two victories over Beard and the Longhorns and two wins over the Baylor Bears, last year’s NCAA champions. Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt knew how important Adams had been to Beard’s Red Raider teams that reached the Elite Eight and then the national championship game in back-to-back seasons (2018 and 2019). When Adams was named head coach in Lubbock, he was touched by the outpouring of support from former players and fellow coaches.

Adams was a few weeks from his sixty-fifth birthday when Hocutt handed him the keys to a program that was already among the country’s best. And in his first year on the job, no coach in the nation has performed better. Adams instilled in his team a defensive mindset from day one, and the Red Raiders lead the nation in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, allowing a mere .844 points per possession.

That Adams could persuade his team to embrace a style of play that required banging big bodies and constant effort is the cornerstone for everything that has followed. “We try to feed offense off of our defense,” said senior forward Bryson Williams. “And I mean when you get easy opportunities and things like that, you’re able to get turnovers and deflections and get the ball back and get extra possessions.”

Guard Kevin McCullar said: “The ball is going to go in some nights, and some nights it’s not. We know one thing that will be consistent is our defense and effort. We want to be the hardest playing team out there, always.”

Last week, after the Red Raiders hung a 35-point beating on Montana State in the first round, Bobcats coach Danny Sprinkle was left awestruck by Tech’s stifling defense. “It’s impressive on film,” he said. “But seeing that in person—I’ve never seen anything like it to be honest with you.

“It felt like they were guarding me,” Sprinkle went on. “I couldn’t even see my play card. That’s the best defensive team in the country for a reason. They make every catch hard. They contest not only every shot, they contest every pass, and they made it really difficult for us.”

As for Coach K, few detected genius after the Blue Devils went a combined 38–47 in his first three seasons. Krzyzewski has often said that the key to all the success that followed, including five national championships, was that Duke athletic director Tom Butters resisted the pressure to fire him way back when.

Krzyzewski’s 42 seasons at Duke is nothing like the path Adams has followed. Before Tech, Adams had so many low-paying jobs, while having a family to support, that he left coaching for seven years beginning in 1997 to run a minor league hockey team, the Lubbock Cotton Kings.

He returned to coaching at Howard College in 2004, where he led the Hawks to a junior college national championship in 2010. He returned to Texas Tech in 2013 as director of basketball operations during Tubby Smith’s tenure as head coach. Then Beard hired him for his staff at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and when Beard got the Tech job in 2016, Adams came home for good.

In Lubbock, Hocutt observed how Adams was able to balance close relationships with players while also demanding effort and respect. Adams’s office—with its now famous jars of candy used to “bribe” players to stay longer to study game tape—became a gathering spot for Tech players.

Only Adams’s age made him an outside-the-box hire—not too many coaches get their first Division I job when they’re already old enough to collect Social Security. Asked last week about this opportunity coming relatively late in life, Adams said there was a message in his winding career trajectory.

“I don’t care how old you are,” Adams said. “Just don’t give up your dreams and don’t quit on yourselves.”