Midwesterner Brenda Frese’s first experiences in the greater Baltimore/D.C. metro area were recruiting trips navigating the 64-mile Capital Beltway. Before she ever landed in College Park as head coach at Maryland, Frese had some issues finding her direction.
“I was here on a July recruiting trip, and I started going around the Beltway and I had gotten lost,” she recalled. “So instead of getting off and turning around, I thought I’d just follow the Beltway around and get to where I wanted to go.”
Locals know it doesn’t work that way. Later, back in the basketball office at the University of Minnesota, the young coach told her staff, “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to ever work in the Maryland/D.C. area.”
Ahem, Frese signed a contract extension in May that will keep her in the Maryland/D.C. region through 2026-27 with a base salary of $1.4 million. She is heading into her 20th season, now comfortably ensconced in College Park, and still driven to succeed like few others.
Turns out, as bad as her Beltway navigation skills were, Frese’s sense of direction in her life and in college basketball have been impeccable. She is the winningest coach in Maryland basketball history (men’s or women’s) at 512-131. She won the 2006 NCAA championship, has been to three Final Fours and won 14 conference titles. She has also had 17 straight 20-win campaigns, seven 30-win seasons and 17 NCAA Tournament appearances.
Defining Frese, 51, by wins and losses and championship banners doesn’t come close to measuring her true achievements. There isn’t enough room in the Xfinity Center rafters to recognize the lives she has touched, the friendships she has forged, the “family” she has grown at Maryland. That personal recruiting trail stretches back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where she was one of six children of Bill and Donna Frese.
Building A Family
Lessons learned in Iowa have always guided Brenda Frese and separated her as a leader. Many coaches talk of building relationships and having a family within their program; Frese lives it. It’s not lip service or a phrase in a recruiting brochure.
Anjalé Barrett, who played for Frese at Maryland from 2008-2012 and then coached under her from 2016-2018, benefited from the culture Frese has built at Maryland.
“She’s a players’ coach,” Barrett said from her assistant coach’s office at Monmouth. “And she’s my mentor. From the moment I went on campus, it was a family environment. You can see it with her boys and her family. She’s very big on family. That was definitely something that drew me there.”
Maryland players are part of the Frese family. They’re frequently in Frese’s and husband Mark Thomas’ home, and watching their twins, Markus and Tyler, grow. There’s empathy and security for her players that perhaps only a mother can provide as they venture off into the world, many for the first time.
“Just how she cared about you on and off the court, that was motivation enough for me,” Barrett said. “I still check in with her. She’s following me and my journey.”
Speaking of journeys, former Frese assistant coach and good friend Tina Langley was named head coach at the University of Washington in March after a successful run at Rice University. It was Langley’s first move in the profession without her mother, who passed away in 2020.
“My mother had always flown out to help me get my home settled,” Langley said. “We would unpack the house in a day, and she would tell me where everything should go. I didn’t inherit her eye.”
So, guess who traveled to Seattle to help her friend through a tough day?
“Brenda knew my mom well, and loved her deeply,” Langley said. “She flew across the country to help me move.”
Frese’s friends and family come first in a nonstop business where that isn’t easy. No wonder so many around the coach love her.
Frese and Langley were together for seven seasons at Maryland through a lot of wins (195-49 record, consecutive Final Four appearances in 2014 and 2015), but also a lot of worry — the health of Langley’s mother, and the health of Frese’s son, Tyler, who was diagnosed with leukemia in 2010. Frese helped Langley through her grief, but more recently, Langley lifted Frese as Frese’s father fought prostate cancer.
“I’ve been with her every step of the way, especially with her hard journey with her mom,” Frese said. “And now it’s flipped for us with my dad.”
Joanna Bernabei-McNamee was an assistant under Frese for four years at Maryland, helping put together the national championship team. She left coaching to raise her family and Frese gave her a timely push to put her back on the coaching fast track. Bernabei-
McNamee is now in her fourth year as head coach at Boston College.
“Brenda gives all of herself in what she does,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “She puts everything she’s got into her work, into her family and she’s just a really, genuinely good person.”
After a six-year hiatus, Bernabei-McNamee was coaching at NAIA Pikeville (Ky.) when Frese recommended her to Albany in 2016.
“I would not have gotten back into Division I coaching had she not done that for me,” Bernabei-McNamee said. “It was so unsolicited. I had no idea. She called me and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re interested but I just told the athletic director at Albany you were a good fit for that job.'”
Two 20-plus-win seasons later, Coach Mac was headed to BC.
Such stories commonly fall out of the Frese coaching tree.
“I’ve been able to coach with some of the best coaches in college, high school and now I’ve been in the NBA the last seven years,” said former Frese assistant David Adkins, most recently with the Wizards. “She’s one of the best people I’ve been around because she cares about whoever she is with, whether you played for her, whether you coached with her or you’re a friend. Always so concerned about my family, my wife, my daughters.”
Adkins’ oldest daughter, Ryland, who was a student manager for the Terps when her father coached there, became Frese’s director of basketball operations this summer.
Tyler has been healthy since ending his chemotherapy in December 2013. Bill Frese got a lot of attention last postseason as everyone learned about his battle and the burden Brenda was carrying.
“He’s … fighting hard,” she said simply, her voice filled with emotion.
Her parents are at the core of the things that define her. Bill is 89, while Donna is 82 and still working in real estate.
“Two hard-working parents that gave us living examples every day raising six kids,” she said. “… They worked two jobs in the time we were growing up, and they supported us through athletics. They were at all our games. That passion — whatever we chose to pursue — they were there to support us, every one of their kids.”
Bill had played sports, primarily baseball and basketball, and Donna was a cheerleader.
“We had the best of both worlds,” Brenda said. “Support from mom and more the analytical side from Dad.”
A standout athletic career made Brenda a major hoops prospect at Cedar Rapids’ Washington High School. She chose Arizona and played three seasons before four surgeries on an injured foot sat her down. The Wildcats also had a coaching change. Former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow cited both those things — “adversity” — as part of her decision to pursue Frese.
“As a coach I’ve always been empathetic to players that have had to sit out, lost years of eligibility with injuries, what that mental toll takes on you,” Frese said. “Having a coaching change, thinking of ways to come in and make players feel or not to make players feel, that was a big one. And for me, I was really homesick. My freshman year I was 26 hours away from home, so I have a great appreciation for what freshmen go through.”
Frese laughs that she landed so far from home because then-Iowa head coach Vivian Stringer didn’t recruit her for her run-and-press style at Iowa. It came down to Indiana, where Bill wanted her to attend, and Arizona, where she felt a pull. Indiana changed coaches the next season, too, and Frese thinks her career might not have played out the same had she become a Hoosier.
“Through that homesickness I had to learn you never replace your family but there is an extension of your family when you’re in a program that has that feel,” she said. “The head coach that recruited me [June Olkowski] was a players’ coach. It helped me grow up to live so far from my family.”
Frese was already harboring hardwood dreams of coaching, probably in high school like her mentor back home, Paul James. But her foot injury changed her direction. Sitting out, she closely observed two different coaches at Arizona (Joan Bonvicini replaced Olkowski), and that’s when she started thinking about college coaching.
In 1991-92, with her playing career over, Frese was trying to move into coaching but ended up more of a team manager with Arizona. Ahead of the 1992-93 season, Pima Community College (Tucson, Ariz.) was looking for some coaching help. Frese doesn’t remember the exact details of how she stepped into a volunteer assistant’s job but does remember 6 a.m. practices.
“It worked with my schedule, and I even got to coach two games because [head coach Susie Pulido] had another job and had to go out of town,” said Frese, who was still enrolled at Arizona at the time. “You talk about hands-on experience. My fifth year in college and I got to give locker room speeches and that’s where I got smitten — ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I want to do.'”
In March 1993, Frese drove from Arizona to the national coaches’ convention in Atlanta to network. She learned Kent State had an opening and found head coach Bob Lindsay so she could build a relationship beyond just a name on a resume. Frese also had another plan. She mailed all the schools that were recruiting her sister Stacy to let them know Big Sister was interested in a graduate assistant’s job.
Ultimately, she was offered the job at Kent State and accepted having never visited the campus. Two years there, four more at Iowa State as an assistant, and Frese was named head coach at Ball State in 1999. Two years later she was at Minnesota and trying to find her way around the Beltway.
On The Right Road
And that’s when Yow started recruiting Frese. Longtime Maryland coach Chris Weller had stepped down in March 2002, and Yow immediately turned her attention to the 31-year-old Frese, who was coming off just her third season as a bench boss.
“She had a brief [coaching] history, but it was impressive,” Yow said. “You could look at what she had done at Ball State for those two years and then you go to Minnesota and look at what happened her first year, from a coaching perspective it seemed to me that wherever she goes, things get better. Fast.”
When Frese took over at Ball State in 1999, the Cardinals hadn’t had a winning season in 10 years. They went 16-13, and then 19-9 the following year, moving Frese on to the Big Ten and Minnesota, which had one winning campaign in 16 years. The Gophers went 22-8 and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament in her first year.
“I remember immediately thinking she was for real, and the success at Ball State and Minnesota had a lot to do with her leadership,” Yow said of meeting Frese. “I was able to take her over to this gigantic hole in the ground that was going to become Comcast [Xfinity Center] and say to her you’re going to have the best facility in the nation.”
And soon Maryland would also have the best basketball team. Frese did what she had done at her other stops: She rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
“You had to flip around a losing mentality into a winner’s mentality,” she said.
She didn’t have the talent to compete in the upper echelon of the ACC with Duke, North Carolina and Virginia, among others.
“We would try to win halves, it wasn’t even about winning games,” Frese said. “We went 10-18. We wanted to change practice habits, diving on the floor, finding anything to turn into a positive to create energy and a level of success.”
Frese had brought her whole staff with her from Minnesota, including sister Marsha, and she trusted them enough that Brenda missed a lot of practices on the road recruiting. Within three years, Maryland landed Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, Marissa Coleman and Kristi Toliver, and in March 2006, they were all cutting down nets in Boston for the national championship, the famous overtime win against Duke.
Climbing Back To The Mountaintop
Frese is hungry to get back to that level and play for another national crown. After COVID forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament in 2020, Frese drove her Terrapins to a 26-3 record and No. 9 ranking last season and made Maryland the highest scoring team in the country at 90.8 points per game. Many folks assumed it would be a rebuilding year instead of the celebration it turned into until the Sweet 16 upset loss to Texas.
“It was one of my most enjoyable years,” Frese said. “Through an incredible year of adversity with COVID, all the changes, couldn’t have asked for a better situation with the team and that staff to go through that journey with them and everything they did accomplish.”
The season didn’t start so enjoyably. All-American Kaila Charles, All-Big Ten Stephanie Jones, All-Defensive Team Blair Watson and fellow senior Sara Vujacic all graduated off the 2020 Big Ten champs, then all-conference underclassmen Shakira Austin and Taylor Mikesell transferred. Frese, who has always recruited so well (13 top-10 recruiting classes and three more in the top 15), was suddenly scrambling on the unsure footing of a pandemic offseason.
The Terrapins quickly came up with the goods in Chloe Bibby from Mississippi State and Katie Benzan from Harvard. Both would start all 29 games, contribute 3-point firepower, grit, determination, immeasurable leadership and synchronicity. Despite arriving late as grad transfers, Bibby and Benzan fit into the family and are eager to run it back for a second season at Xfinity Center.
“What I love about Coach B is that there are two sides of her,” Benzan said. “You have that loving, maternal side of her and then you have the intense, excuse my language, badass kind of coach. She just wants the best from you, has high expectations and holds us accountable. At the end of the day, at the end of practice, no matter what happened, she’s going to give you a big hug and joke around with you. She creates such a fun and enjoyable environment.”
Frese has all five starters back and her top eight scorers, including a healthy Angel Reese (the Baltimore big-timer who missed half of her freshman season with a broken foot). Now add in 6-foot-2 Shyanne Sellers, a top-25 recruit from Aurora, Ohio.
“There were no expectations with that offseason [last year], the changes and personnel that we added,” Frese said. “Now there are expectations and excitement for everyone coming back.”
This isn’t the veteran coach’s first rodeo. She is challenging her team to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015, gearing up for that sort of gauntlet and imprinting that thought on the squad.
“We’ve ramped it up that way on purpose. I think the thing that hurt us last year was we had no postseason experience,” Frese said. “I think people forget that was the first NCAA Tournament for Ashley [Owusu] and Diamond [Miller]. Even though they were sophomores, it was taken away the first year. Only Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins had ever been through an NCAA Tournament and played in one [at other schools].”
Frese will find her way with this team and beyond. She always has.
And maybe the simplest explanation, as her extended family would agree, is that good things happen to good people.
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox