COLLEGE PARK — Brenda Frese will be the first to tell you she sometimes trampled through life, so intent on the goals ahead that she didn't necessarily worry about the bruised feelings left in her wake.
If she wanted something, she took it, a brash style she used to transform the Maryland women's basketball program from losers to national champs in a mere four years. She was 35 then and couldn't have imagined she would need eight years to steer the Terps back to the Final Four.
The 43-year-old who will coach Maryland on the biggest stage in her sport Sunday night is a different character, one shaped by harder things than winning games.
There was professional disappointment as a succession of ultra-talented Maryland teams fell a few steps short of their promise. But even that paled in comparison to the phone call Frese took from her husband in 2010. "Leukemia," he said, delivering the unfathomable diagnosis for one of their twin sons.
Frese can smile about her journey now, even laugh at the way players describe her as "motherly," an adjective few would have used during her first Final Four run in 2006, when the team won the national championship.
Her team is rolling behind Alyssa Thomas, arguably the best player she's ever coached. The medical prognosis for her 6-year-old son Tyler is excellent. He and his brother Markus lead merry lives, shooting hoops with mom's players, who treat them like little siblings.
But make no mistake — Frese wasn't always sure the road would wind back to this place. And for that reason, she's delighting in every moment.
"I just know this one, I appreciate so much more," she says. "The first time you go through it, you think you're getting back, just like that. But you realize, when you haven't been since '06, how hard it is."
Those close to her also see a woman who has developed a fuller appreciation of life.
"I think her perspective is way different now," says her husband, Mark Thomas. "She's much more in the present moment, just enjoying everything. She stopped racing so much."
Debbie Yow, the former Maryland athletic director who hired Frese, has spent her life among great basketball coaches. She sees in Frese the blend of a young coach's drive and a tested teacher's emotional maturity.
"She's in her prime right now," says Yow, currently the athletic director at North Carolina State.
In Sunday's national semifinals, Frese's Terps (28-6) will take on Notre Dame (36-0), which is hampered by a season-ending injury to its leader, Natalie Achonwa. Maryland nearly beat the Irish in January, and the players seem confident they can pull an upset.
If the Terps do it, they'll only augment the resume of their coach, who has always thrived on upsetting the establishment.
Frese grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of six siblings in a close-knit family that shot baskets on the driveway hoop installed by her father, Bill. Her husband says she learned self-reliance early because, with so many kids around, no one could wait to be coddled.
Certainly, Frese's confidence emerged long before she was leading teams to the Final Four. She was the kind of kid who stood before a high school pep rally and predicted a playoff victory over the best team in the state (yes, her team won). She was the kind of young woman who drove to the Final Four as a college senior and petitioned older coaches for an assistant job. She took a gig at Kent State without even seeing the campus.
"That's the essence of who Brenda is," her husband says. "She's fearless."
She waitressed at a Little Caesars pizza shop to supplement her meager income. Frese thrived as an assistant at Kent State and Iowa State, then rapidly turned around programs at Ball State and Minnesota in her first two shots at head coaching.
When she pursued Frese in 2002, Yow saw a born overachiever who would throw a jolt into a Maryland program that hadn't advanced past the first round of the NCAA tornament in nine years and was coming off a losing season. The young coach did just that, signing a string of top recruits and taking the Terps to the NCAA tournament in her second season. They've only missed the tournament twice in her 12 years in College Park.
But Frese's ascent did not come without collateral damage. Her first marriage ended in divorce largely because she was so focused on her career. Competitors grumbled about her aggressive recruiting tactics. Her players at Minnesota felt betrayed, because they heard she'd taken the Maryland job before she was able to tell them personally.
"At what point do we get some loyalty?" Minnesota All-American Lindsay Whalen told the St. Paul Pioneer Press at the time. "We had been working so long to get things right again. Sometimes you wonder if there's any loyalty at all."
Frese, who signed a contract extension with Maryland in November and makes about $1 million a year in total compensation, acknowledges how relentless she was.
"I think I'm still very confident and brash at times," she says. "But I think I have more balance than I did at that time. … I'm probably a lot more fun to be around."
She rarely apologized, figuring all the hard charging was the only way to reach her sport's top rung. The Terps did it before anyone expected, capturing the 2006 title with a precocious group of underclassmen who played best in the tensest moments.
Observers around the sport talked dynasty, but it wasn't to be.
Three times the Terps made the tournament's final eight in the years that followed. Each time they lost, sometimes to less gifted teams.
As badly as Frese wanted to win, she was equally determined to prove she could raise a family at the same time.
She married Thomas, whom she had met while he was filming a documentary on the program, in 2005. She learned she was pregnant with twins in 2007 and instead of easing up, coached that season from a black upholstered chair designed to support her increasingly strained back. Markus and Tyler were born Feb. 17, 2008, just a few weeks before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Yow remembers Frese phoning casually that day. "Brenda where are you?" the athletic director asked. The recovery room at the hospital, Frese replied.
"She had the twins and she was back on the bench shortly after," Yow says. "She was determined to show a woman can have a family and a successful career."
Almost from the start, the twins became fixtures around Maryland practices and games, fully integrated components of their mother's demanding life. A new atmosphere surrounded the program as players watched Frese balance basketball and family. Several current Terps cite the comfortable vibe as a reason for choosing the university.
"She's a mom," says freshman point guard Lexie Brown, describing Frese. "She has that maternal personality that I love, because I'm really close to my mom. We can connect on a level that some players don't get to with their coaches."
"I think that's what every person who recruits to Maryland says," agrees senior guard Sequoia Austin. "We love that family atmosphere. I think that's the greatest draw."
Thus everyone shared the fear inspired by Mark Thomas' call from the emergency room at Johns Hopkins Hospital on Sept. 28, 2010. Frese was on the road recruiting when her phone rang and her husband told her to pull over.
Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The words took Frese to the same place they would any parent — thoughts of losing a child. Thomas heard the tears choking her voice.
The first uncertain days were the toughest, worse than the weeks spent watching Tyler lose his hair and become bloated as chemotherapy drugs pumped through his body. By then, at least, Frese and Thomas knew he had a good chance to get well.
Given his weakened immune system, any temperature above 100.3 degrees meant a trip to the emergency room at Hopkins. Thomas bore the brunt of those scares, determined never to make Frese choose between family and career.
"But I know it tore at her to not always be the one comforting him," Thomas says. "If he had the choice, he always would want mommy first."
The family's battle created deeper bonds between Frese and her players.
"People don't realize that when Tyler got sick, they saw how strong she really was," says Alyssa Thomas' mother, Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas. "That motivated them even more."
Tyler finished his last course of medication in December. He could be declared cancer-free next year if his check-ups remain clear. Goofing around with his brother and the players after a Maryland practice, he looks like any happy little boy.
"I don't think they quite get how cool it is that they're shooting their first hoops at the Comcast Center," their father says. "They just think it's normal."
But mom and dad took a moment to soak in all the good news as they embraced on the court after Maryland's win over Louisville in the Elite 8 on Tuesday.
"We just had our arms around each other, and we talked about what a season it's been," Mark Thomas says.
'To the point'
When the Terps talk of Frese being motherly, however, they're not just talking about the comforting, supportive kind of mom.
"Mothers can get brash and really short and to the point with you when needed," Austin says. "I think that's even more motherly than the loving parts, you know. That sense that we need to get things done, and we need to get them done now."
The tough-love version came out in full force after Maryland lost in the quarterfinals of this year's ACC tournament (the school's last before leaving for the Big Ten, a change that initially caught Frese off guard but which she now supports).
Frese had spent the whole season telling her players how promising they were, how they might be up there with her national championship team. But now she was worried.
The players still made too many silly mistakes, and they didn't bring the vigor she expected to every game.
"Quite honestly, I didn't know if the team was going to get it or not," Frese says.
So the Terps went back to the basics, with physically grueling practices and frank talks about how each player needed to improve. These children of the Internet even agreed to give up their smartphones and laptops on the days around games so they wouldn't be distracted.
In Kentucky last weekend, the Terps played as Frese had long hoped, muscling their way past Tennessee and Louisville behind the All-American Alyssa Thomas. Their coach goaded them, sure, but at the most tenuous moment, with their lead against Louisville almost gone and the players seeming shaken, Frese was grinning and calm.
"She's unbelievable in moments like that," says Brown, who has bonded with her coach through weekly one-on-one meetings. "She's one of the most poised coaches that I've ever seen."
The team collapsed into a joyous pile after Louisville's last shot clanged off the rim, sealing a 76-73 Maryland victory. They had taken Frese's challenge and become what she believed they could be.
But the coach highlights a quieter image from the trip home to illustrate where she stands. Sequences from the game still flashed through her mind as the airplane glided along. Tyler, meanwhile, slumbered in her lap.
Everything she wanted was right there — a life in balance.
Maryland women's basketball coaches
The Maryland women's basketball program has only had three coaches since becoming a varsity sport in 1971. Here's a look at the team's record under each:
Dottie McKnight (4 years, 1971-75): 44-17 (.721)
Chris Weller (27 years, 1975-2002): 499-286 (.636); reached Final Four in 1982 and 1989
Brenda Frese (12th year; 2002-present): 306-100 (.754); reached Final Four in 2006 and 2014 (2006 national champions)
BRENDA FRESE BIO
Years as Maryland Coach: 12
NCAA tournament appearances: 10
Final Four appearances: 2
Record at Maryland: 306-100
Compensation: $984,637 in 2012
Family: Husband Mark Thomas and twin sons Markus and Tyler (age 6)Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun