The Hottest Coach in Garyland
By Greg Abel
One week after the University of Maryland women's basketball team won its first-ever national championship, head coach Brenda Frese hustled into her office at the Comcast Center chattering away with one of those wireless gizmos attached to her ear.
After finishing the call, she warmly welcomed a visitor, apologizing for running late even though she was exactly on time. Frese set out to explain how such a young coach -- she's 35 -- could lead such a young team -- no senior starters -- to a Final Four and an unlikely, inspirational national championship.
"I am living out my dream," said Frese. Seated at the conference table in her spacious office, she was the walking, talking image of her program, dressed in black pants and a red Maryland sweater.
Brenda Frese captured the title in just her fourth season at Maryland.
(Photo: Greg Fiume/Maryland Public Relations)
Frese received 650 emails and scores of phone calls after she and her Terps became the fresh, new championship faces of women's basketball. Just a few days after Maryland's 78-75 overtime thriller over Duke, she had already been back out on the recruiting trail.. That game, complete with a shot that may forever be remembered as "the shot" -- the step-back three-pointer that freshman Kristi Toliver drained over a lunging 6-foot-7 defender to force OT -- brought more buzz to the program than anyone had expected.
"Everything about that game symbolized our season," Frese said. "You take one 45- minute game and look at it. We were down by 10 at the half and by 13 at one point. What are you going to do? We make a major comeback and all five players scored in double figures. During the season, all five of our starters averaged double figures.
"We were so young and we used it to our advantage instead of as an excuse. Then the game goes to overtime, and we hadn't lost in overtime all year. There were so many variables that went our way."
Frese's dream of a national championship for Maryland seemed implausible before her arrival to College Park in 2002. The program had not been a factor in the national rankings or NCAA tournament in 15 years, and Frese went 10-18 in her first year on the sideline at Comcast Center.
But the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native -- already legendary among women's coaches for her recruiting tenacity and success -- put together a succession of top 10 classes, and the Terps were on their way.
Under Frese, Maryland has improved dramatically every year:18-13 in her second year and a first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1993; then 22-10 last season and another second round exit in the tournament; to this year's 34-4 top five national championship juggernaut.
Along the way, Frese injected her program and players with boundless optimism and confidence. She brought in seven high-school all Americans and allowed them to play an open, attacking style. With balanced scoring, undeniable chemistry, and just a dash of magic, there they were a few years later -- cutting down the nets in Boston after spectacularly defeating North Carolina and Duke in the Final Four and championship game.
Suddenly, all over Maryland and even around the country, basketball fans were talking about Maryland women's hoops. Toliver's shot was the highlight of the week on SportsCenter. Everyone, it seemed, had seen the game, or at least a replay of the shot.
"I hired Brenda because I thought there was something special about her," said Maryland Athletic Director Debbie Yow, who lured a then 31-year-old Frese from the University of Minnesota after just one year with the Gophers and just three as a Division I coach. "Certainly winning the national championship in only her fourth year puts us ahead of schedule, but I did believe under her leadership that we would eventually win a national championship."
Toliver, a native of Harrisonburg, Va. and former state player of the year, has only good things to say about Frese. "I just like how she is involved in every play on the sidelines, pacing up and down, clapping and reinforcing that good things are going to happen. I just love her enthusiasm."
That enthusiasm and good old-fashioned hustle has helped Frese land big-time players such as Toliver and fellow starters Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, Marissa Coleman, and Shay Doron. Doron selected Maryland over Duke and Harvard three years ago and her arrival was one of the first signs that Maryland women's basketball was about to change for the better.
"I think her youth has really helped her out," said Doron, a junior and the most veteran member of the starting five. "Communication is really important with Coach B. If you are not a good communicator, she is going to force you to communicate."
Midwestern Roots, East Coast Style
The story of how Brenda Frese got to Maryland and turned the Terrapins into a national power starts back in Iowa, where the fourth of Bill and Donna Frese's six children grew up playing basketball. Early on she displayed the kind of work ethic and confidence that would make her a Division I head coach before her 30th birthday.
Her father remembers an AAU tournament when Brenda was a 14-year-old ninth grader and won a free throw shooting contest. Each player got 10 warm-up shots and then had to take 25 for the competition. Frese knocked down 35 in a row and wanted to keep going.
"One of the officials came up and said, 'young lady, you can stop shooting now,'" Bill Frese recalled. "She always was very motivated. As I look back, I can remember after her high school games, she'd almost act like a coach at the time, always asking what she could do to improve."
As a star forward for Cedar Rapids Washington High School, Frese helped her team win a state championship over a more highly regarded opponent after trailing by 10 at the half -- exactly as Maryland did against Duke. Bill Frese said a teammate of his daughter's recalled Brenda telling her teammates, "we got 'em right where we want 'em" before going out and winning the championship.
In Boston during the Final Four, Bill Frese said the entire immediate family, save one sibling who could not make it, gathered for the weekend to watch Brenda's team pull off an even more astounding championship. "It was so inspiring," he said. "I just looked around and everyone had tears in their eyes."
Frese credits her parents, who work together in real estate, with instilling in her the work ethic and dedication that has made her successful. After high school, Frese went off to the University of Arizona on a basketball scholarship, but injuries limited her playing career. After starting as a sophomore, she did not play at all during her senior year and gravitated toward coaching. When a spot opened up at local Pima Community College, Frese became the only assistant coach, and did a little bit of everything -- coaching, recruiting, even scheduling.
After graduating in 1993, Frese took an assistant position with Kent State and stayed there two years before accepting an elevated role with Coach Bill Fennelly at Iowa State. There she helped rebuild the program and also coached her younger sister, Stacy, an all Big 12 performer.
A Recruiting Force
It was at Iowa State that Frese began earning a reputation as a recruiting force, someone who would out-hustle, outsell, and out-travel her competition. "She does the work, has great people skills … she knows how important it is to a program and she can really relate well to young people," said Fennelly.
He recalled a now famous instance when Frese drove through a terrible snow storm to see a player -- Megan Taylor -- who eventually became one of the best players in Cyclones history. In her four years with Fennelly at Iowa State, the Cyclones made the tournament three times. In 1999, Frese went off to Ball State to become the head coach at the tender age of 29.
She wouldn't stay long. Frese coached Ball State to records of 16-13 and 19-9 in her two years there, somewhat remarkable considering that the program hadn't had a winning season in nine years. Then Minnesota and the Big 10 came calling, and Frese hopped another rung on the coaching ladder. Her first and only season in Minnesota resulted in another attention grabbing turnaround job -- a 22-10 record for a team that went 8-20 the season before.
Yow lured Frese to Maryland during the men's team's championship season, landing her at a time when she was red hot, having been named AP national coach of the year and with other pursuers, including Ohio State, on her trail.
In 2004, Frese signed a contract extension that will keep her in College Park through 2010. Open to renegotiation at any time, it includes a $500,000 buyout clause, should she jump ship to the WNBA or another program.
"I feel like I have the best job in the country," said Frese. "I made three moves in four years to get to the University of Maryland. They were all the right moves, but it is very hard personally to be able to rebuild three programs and devote that amount of energy and time along the way. I love being here and having stability with both feet on the ground."
Along with all Frese's quick and remarkable success has come criticism and rumor mongering. A few articles have popped up in places like The Washington Post and ESPN.com citing coaches (who would not go on the record) saying Frese pushes the limits of the recruiting rules, and even suggested that the NCAA is poking around.
Yow would hear none of it, and referred any questions about an NCAA inquiry to Kathy Worthington, the executive senior associate athletic director, who heads compliance.
"We are not under investigation at all," Worthington said. "The NCAA has a national program where they interview high profile recruits in every sport to see how the recruiting process is going. We've had a number of high profile recruits on our women's basketball team and they did talk to several members of the team to review the process. If anything, it shined a good light on the standards we work by when we're recruiting."
Frese chalks up the negative talk to jealousy or envy and some of the unfortunate sides of human nature.
"It's something I've had to deal with," Frese said. "When you have success, there are a lot of people who support you and then there's a lot of people who don't want you to succeed for one reason or another."
How do you top a national championship? It's an interesting problem, of course, and one that any coach in the country would love to have. Maryland fans need look no further than the men's program at College Park to realize that championships and those "special seasons" can be fickle things that can come and go.
But unlike the Gary Williams team that won the title in 2002, and then lost most of the nucleus to graduation or the NBA or both, the Maryland women's team returns all five starters and 97 percent of their scoring from this year's team.
So, of course the Terps will be the No. 1 team heading in to the year, with a bulls-eye on their back and the status as leaders rather than chasers.
Aside from more wins and titles, another item on Frese's agenda is increasing attendance at the Comcast Center. Frese says she and her team will take care of the winning, but she is hoping that the community, which rallied around the team and its tournament run, will come out in greater numbers next year to see the same bunch try to defend.
The team averaged only about 4,500 fans at home games this past season, but has already sold 2,000 new season ticket plans since the national championship. Whatever happens, Frese said her coaching style and attitude won't change. "I just try to be as positive and confident for my players as I can," she said. "I want to surround them in an environment that's nothing but supportive. When you have players on the floor who believe in each other, you can withstand anything that comes up."
Issue 1.2: May 4, 2006