Maryland women's basketball coach Brenda Frese is entering her ninth season in College Park, and it might be the most challenging season of her stellar career. The No. 21 Terps will open their season Saturday night against Monmouth with a team so young that it does not include a single senior and a coach who has just been given the ultimate perspective check.
Frese and her husband, Mark Thomas, learned just weeks ago that one of their 2-year old twins, Tyler, has leukemia. Tyler has responded well to treatment and the outlook is positive, but Frese suddenly has a great deal more on her mind than she did when the Terps were headed to their first NCAA title in 2006.
She sat down with Baltimore Sun columnist Peter Schmuck to talk about both her new team and her family's new reality.
Question: Let's start off with an easy one since you're about to play your first real game of the new season. Tell me why you're excited about this year's team.
Answer: So many reasons to be excited about this year's team. With the returners, I feel like our sophomore and junior class are coming back in the best shape of their lives. They've had a year to be able to understand what it takes to play at the highest level. And then with such a talented top-two recruiting class in the country with our five freshmen. You know, all five are going to be able to make an immediate impact on this program, so just blending this team together to see what we are going to become.
Q: You don't have a senior on this team. How unusual is that at this level?
A: It's very unusual to not have a senior on the roster, but I think what is really exciting for our program is the core and the nucleus of these players is going to be here for a long time — two or three years playing together. We're thrilled by the fact that we're going to have so much time together.
Q: When you have a younger team, does it mean that you provide most of the leadership and then as the team matures there will be players who graduate into the leadership positions who then take some of that responsibility away from you?
A: Yes, absolutely. Our coaching staff will have the majority of mentoring and teaching leadership this season, and then you hope as the season unfolds, it becomes natural for a lot of our players. They all at certain points are going to have to be leaders. To me, it's fun. I love teaching and mentoring and developing young players.
Q: This also is a very tall team. What does that mean from a coaching perspective? Is tall just always good in basketball?
A: It's always great in basketball. Yes, we have eight players who are 6-2 or taller. That's got to be unheard of. I've never coached a team with this kind of length. We feel like we should absolutely be able to utilize our length to [our] advantage. I think there are going to be a lot of areas that we're going to be able to impact this game due to our size.
Q: I gotta tell you, I was looking down your roster — the first young lady on your roster is named Sequoia Austin. I'm from California. Sequoias are a big deal there. They are the tallest trees in the world. So I'm thinking, "What a cool name for a basketball player." She's the shortest on the team, by a lot. What's up with that?
A: That's a great point. I've never actually thought of that. Sequoia's a great story in and of itself. She's a walk-on that had been added to our roster, and going into my ninth year here at Maryland, only the second walk-on we've ever taken. She was someone I had known through the recruiting process when I went out and recruited Tianna Hawkins. Just brings a great presence and energy to herself. Very intelligent student. Got into Maryland on her own. Someone who provides a lot of spark and energy for our team.
Q: And who do you suspect will emerge as the leaders on this team?
A: I think, first and foremost, probably Kim Rodgers and Anjale Barrett, given the fact that they are redshirt juniors, so they've been in this program for four years. Their maturity level and experience help them on the floor, and I think, after that, it will be leadership by committee. I'm already seeing freshmen that are developing into some really neat leadership roles that I think they all can — at individual times — provide some leadership for us.
Q: You're ranked fourth in the ACC preseason poll. The only members of your team who are listed among the award-caliber players were listed under "Newcomers to watch." Does that mean that you're a developing team, or do you feel like you will compete for the ACC championship this year?
A: We feel like we'll compete every time we step out on the floor, and I think the rest will take care of itself. And I think a lot of that is, people don't know what the identity of this team will be, given that it is so young, but that's what makes it so exciting — that people don't have an understanding of the makeup and the dynamics of this team. This team has all the right ingredients, and as long as they stay the course, they are going to be very successful.
Q: You've had success everywhere you've been as a head coach. MAC Coach of the Year in 2000. Big Ten Coach of the Year at Minnesota. You come here and, in a relatively short time, you win the Division I championship. How does reaching the pinnacle of this profession — because that is what that trophy is — how does that change your life? How does that affect the way you coach, or does it?
A: Obviously, that's what every coach and player, that's your dream, and you aspire to be on that stage lifting that national championship trophy. For me, what it represents is an opportunity with a special team of players and coaches who all lined up as one for that season and committed to each other and made a tremendous amount of sacrifices. It's such a special feeling to be able to have that unfold, and I think the most important thing was to be able to bring that back to Maryland — their first national championship. To be able to go down in history is something that's truly amazing. In the scheme of life. A national championship? There's nothing more that compares to the birth of your children and raising your family, so I think you can always put it into perspective of a piece of hardware versus having your own family and those moments that you get to have. I think you have to understand [the difference] between both areas.
Q: I've asked this question of many athletes after World Series and other big events. Does winning it make you want to win it again more?
A: I want to win it as much as we can for the players and for the coaches. To be on this staff and only have my trainer and I [as] the only two that have experienced that feeling. I want it for everybody else. To know when you line up together as a unit, some special things can happen. So, absolutely, for selfish reasons, for everybody else, I'd love to have it happen as much as we can.
Q: [Men's coach Gary Williams] won one a few years earlier. You won one. When you raise the bar to that level, does it change everything from a program standpoint? The expectations going forward?
A: Oh, yes. The expectations are always extremely high. You know, anytime you've won a national championship or an ACC championship, you've set pretty much an unrealistic bar. When you have a season where you drop off, people don't understand because of the expectations. I would rather have it that way. That's why I came to Maryland. Athletic director Debbie Yow's vision was that our program and our athletic department should be top 10 in everything we do. I love when people have high goals because that's what you want to be a part of.
Q: Now, do you reflect much on that season, or are you one of those people that every year is a new year and you're always looking forward?
A: I reflect more on that season through pictures with players that come back, but those memories are always going to be etched in your mind. As far as new teams and new seasons, I'm always in the now and in the present, and wanting to make this group — this 2010-2011 season — as good as we can possibly make it.
Q: Here are a couple of short-answer questions: What's the best thing about coaching?
A: The best thing about coaching is the players. They keep you young, and you get to be a part of their life every single day and you're making a difference.
Q: What's the worst thing about coaching?
A: The worst thing about coaching is sometimes the demands on your time take you away from your family, so you spend more time outside of your family, missing those milestones when you have small children growing up. So you kind of want to be in both places at one time.
Q: It's apparent that you've always been kind of a techie when it comes to being a coach — that you were one of the first people who texted recruits. And you also seem like a fairly enthusiastic tweeter. I don't know of too many coaches who tweet. How does that help the program? How does that mesh with what you're doing otherwise?
A: I think it's critical that you're able to relate to your players. You have to be able to understand their world. Their world is techy, you know, it's the text messaging and Skype and being able to be on Twitter and Facebook and all those things. I want to be ahead of the curve or understand as much as possible in their world so I don't lose the ability to be able to communicate with them.
Q: You were doing the texting part before the NCAA started putting restrictions on it. Were you surprised they went to the extent of restricting text messaging?
A: I can understand it, once it got to a point that it [was] becoming intrusive to a student-athlete's day when they were sitting in classes and the amount of pressure that was being placed on them. I think it totally makes sense.
Q: One of the things you have done throughout your career is put an emphasis on your team being a family, and, in a sense, you've also integrated your own family into the team at times. Is that unusual from your experience with what other coaches do, or is that just your personality and that's the way you're going to do things?
A: I can't really speak for other coaches. I just know I always have to be true to me and who I am. I was raised in a big family. Four other sisters and a brother. It was all about family when we went through every single day. I just look at our program. We bring all these players from all over the U.S. and from other countries. We have a young lady from London and France. We bring them here, and they sacrifice four to five years. What an opportunity to be an extension of their family and for them to feel that comfort level day-in and day-out as they are starting to develop as young people.
Q: Now, you were doing this before you had kids. Now you have your own children. That's 14 girls who, in a sense, are daughter figures. You're going to hear their problems. How much of your time is spent with that part of it?
A: I think a lot of our time is spent with the psyche, building up and helping young women be as confident as they can be. Not only myself, but my entire staff is really tuned into our players, whether they are having a tough day or are having a situation go on, because it's going to impact them on the court if their mind isn't where it needs to be. We do a really good job in terms of our communication as a staff, being able to help our young players each and every day.
Q: Obviously, it was a big story on media day when you announced that Tyler has leukemia. I can't even imagine … I have kids, but they are grown … I can't even imagine getting that news. How traumatic was being told that for you and your husband, and can you give me a sense of that next 24 hours for your family?
A: It still brings tears to my eyes to think of that moment … by far one of the most horrific moments that I've ever been through in my life. I was actually out on the road recruiting. I had a great day recruiting and was driving back to the hotel at night, and my husband called and asked me if I was driving and told me to pull over. And, I think, like all parents when you hear the word leukemia and cancer, you go into an instant mode of like, how long does your child have to live, and you kind of go worst-case scenario with it. But once you educate yourself and have a better understanding, you can change your outlook and your perspective and it's all about education. It was actually probably a blessing in disguise [that] I couldn't get home that night with the flight with where I was at until the next morning because it was almost like I needed to get myself together before I could go and be that strength for my son. So I got on the plane the next morning, got right to the hospital, my son went into his surgical procedure to have a port put into his chest and chemotherapy and bone marrow and spinal tap taken. From there on, it's been nothing from us but positive, confident thoughts and energy for our son Tyler. Day by day, things are going really well.
Q: I followed some of the tweets. Things are going well. Is he in remission?
A: He's 30 days into it, and the chemotherapy is working. After the first month, has shown no leukemia cells. They know from doing this long enough that it's still three years of treatments that day by day he has to continue through, so watching that when your son is taking chemo and is on steroids and the hair loss and the weight gain and those kinds of things, but all signs early are that he's really responding well with everything.
Q: And obviously, it's heart-rending because there is discomfort in all that for him. It's got to tear you up every time he has to go in for treatments. I'm not familiar with the treatment regimen, but they had to put in a port, so it's not an easy thing. Have you reached a point where you steel yourself to that, or is it that every time he cries, you cry?
A: I think silently, inside, you always want to take away any pain you can from any one of your children when they are going through tough times. I think also that you gain a new perspective. Every time I'm at Johns Hopkins, I see cases that are far worse than our own, and I think within that you see what great suffering is going on out there in the real world. Sometimes you lose that perspective when you're coaching … when you're out on the court. Sometimes it's a blessing that I can go out there and escape and not have to feel that pain or sorrow that you see so much of out there. I think it also gives you a true sense of perspective of what struggles everybody has out there in life at different moments and in different times.
Q: I recall, at the time, when you found out you were going to have the twins, you told your team, and the emotional reaction to that. What was the emotional reaction when you told the team about this?
A: I told the team as soon as after that week that we were in the hospital with Tyler and when I came back to practice. I wanted our players to know first. I didn't want them to hear it from some other outlet and not hear it from myself. It was actually after practice that I informed them. Like you would expect. Young people are resilient. They were tremendous. Each and every one of them, I guess when you share with them, they get a truer understanding of different things that are taking place, but they were amazing.
Q: We do throw the word "perspective" around a lot in my business. Sometimes it doesn't mean anything, and sometimes it does. Obviously, it does here. Is there an aspect of this challenge in your life and your family's life that has made you look at your job differently? Is basketball now "just basketball" as opposed to being something you focused on for your whole young-adult life moving forward and the ambition that goes with trying to become a top-level national championship basketball coach?
A: Absolutely. I mean, it has changed me, because I want to make sure that every single day that I'm in their lives as much as I can, given everything I'm balancing and juggling. Also, when you talk about perspective, it makes me want to continue to keep educating and teaching our players on our team. It's a big reason why this year we scheduled Gallaudet — the school where the players are all deaf — to play in that game [a Nov. 2 exhibition], and we hosted a reception after the game for our players. Two of our players take a signing class and were able to communicate. I think [it's important] for our players to understand that, hey, when we have a tough day and it's just because we had a tough day on an exam or a bad practice, it's nowhere near compared to some of the life struggles that other people have out there, and people that are just like them playing college basketball and juggling their academics but can't hear a thing when they go through their 24-hour day. I think, absolutely, I've been changed in a lot of different ways and want to continue to help our players to understand the bigger picture out there.
Q: Why did you feel it was important on media day to go public?
A: For a couple of reasons. Obviously, being a visible coach, you knew the information was going to be out there. The nights that I was in the hospital with my son, you know, I felt like when you're trying to kind of answer those questions, "Why me?" "Why our family?" "Why him?" I have an opportunity to be a voice for leukemia and, again, there are so many children out there who are in such tougher situations, and even adults, than my son Tyler, that we need to bring awareness and focus to all the struggles that are out there.
Q: Are you affiliating with any specific charities or research organizations?
A: I do a lot of work with cystic fibrosis. My cousin died from that. SIDS [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome], I've done an active partnership with them. Shady Grove Fertility, I've done an active partnership with them and the YMCA. Just as many different areas where I can help shed some light on or be an advocate for.
Q: The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society has a big presence in Maryland. The progress in leukemia research since I was a kid — of course, I'm a lot older than you — has been astounding.
A: I was surprised when the doctor told us on the second night that leukemia isn't what it was 30 years ago with the amount of research and what they've learned through education. What a wonderful thing to think about, in 30 years how much we've advanced in that area.
Q: Let's move over to college athletics in general. You're the highest-profile women's coach in Maryland. You're part of a very well-regarded coaching triumvirate here with a couple of fairly dynamic other characters, to put it mildly, interesting other characters. From the outside, I think people view this, especially about the time that Debbie Yow was leaving, that there is some kind of soap opera going on here. Is that a misconception?
A: Absolutely. I think you have a lot of coaches and administrators that are driven and we're all extremely competitive, and I think everyone has their own reasons for being who they are. I don't think anybody can fault Debbie Yow for wanting to move back after the death of her sister and probably that experience for her — losing her older sister and wanting to move closer to home — I think we all completely understand it.
Q: Debbie brought you here and she put a big emphasis on women's athletics, and I assume that won't change, but on a personal level, do you miss her?
A: Yeah, absolutely. When your athletic director who hired you and was a women's coach herself and wanted to be at every game as much as she could be, to have that kind of mentorship. She was a mentor for me, but I do feel like she's prepared me for anything. I'm going into my ninth year here now, but I do miss those opportunities to go step up in her office and just [be] a sounding board, so to speak. But having said that, Kevin Anderson has done a tremendous job. Since hearing the news about Tyler and everything that he has been carrying on his plate, his presence has been huge. I welcome having a new relationship with Kevin.
Q: There have actually been two major changes in the administration — Kevin and a new university president. Does that affect your program? Does that affect anything you do?
A: No, you know the president and the athletic director here at Maryland, they've always been supportive. The goals haven't changed, to be a top-10 program and be as successful as you can be. I think we all say that in the interim, when no one was hired yet, every coach continued to stay the course, and you're as driven as you possibly can be. I think, if anything, they just enhance the experience. They make it more pleasant, and they can add to what already is a pretty special environment.
Q: I've read a few interviews with you, and you've said a few times that you want Maryland to be the last stop on your coaching tour. You're a fairly young woman. Is that realistic?
A: I hope this is where I get to retire. You look at the success that a lot of Division I coaches have had, when you finally get to retire where you want it to be your last stop. Maryland is a dream come true for me. I love everything about coaching here. This area. Living here. Raising my children here. My husband went to school here. His family is all from the area. There is no other place that I would rather be.
Q: Women's basketball has come a long way over the past 30 years. Now, you have a sustainable professional league and you have a level of play that has advanced to the point where I often hear my crusty old male sports fan friends say that the women are the only ones who play real basketball anymore. They play the game right. Have we finally gotten to a comfort zone in the game? Is this where it is? Is this the equilibrium now — the college game is healthy, and there is a sustainable professional league — or is there more to accomplish from the standpoint of recognition of the game, popularity of the professional game and the evolution of talent?
A: I think our sport is not that old. I think when you look at the speed and the athleticism and the strength, the game has gone full-circle seeing the versatility of players now, playing multiple positions, the size, getting personal trainers at an earlier age, I mean the game has just taken off in that area. The recognition, when you talk about the visibility and the exposure of the media, all our games being on television for the NCAA tournament — the national recognition, all of that, has just taken off. I still think there is room to grow. Attendance, overall, throughout the universities, can absolutely improve, and I think there's going to be even more parity as the game continues to unfold.
Q: Last question: When you were a banged-up senior basketball player at Arizona, could you have envisioned any of this?
A: (Laughing) No, not at all. When I was at Arizona, I was just hoping that I could coach high school and kind of follow a mentor of mine. Coach Paul James was my high school coach, and I was hoping to be able to go in that direction. But I always remember my dad telling us growing up that you can do even more than [you] even realize, and he was absolutely right.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun