Only best will do

The Baltimore Sun

College Park -- If every fan of the Maryland women's basketball program was thinking it, well, university president C.D. Mote Jr. just came out and used the "D" word.

Standing a few feet from coach Brenda Frese as she and her team celebrated the program's first national title in April, Mote said, "This is, fans, the beginning of a dynasty in women's athletics."

Such are the expectations when you win with two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in the starting five, have a commitment from the nation's most-touted transfer and are primed to sign another top-five recruiting class.

Frese and her players are learning what it's like to play queens of the mountain in women's college basketball, and they're not shy about saying they like the fit.

"I love it," Frese said of the new bull's-eye on her program. "I'll take this challenge anytime. We've got kids that are easy to challenge and motivate. They're hungry, they work hard, so yeah, if you're a competitor, you like it."

Her players sound, if anything, more confident.

"We have all five of our starters returning so why shouldn't we be able to win again?" mused All-America candidate Crystal Langhorne. "And the year after, we'll be losing one starter. We're very young, so I think we're very capable of winning for two more years."

The Terps women did plenty to solicit affection last season. They vanquished longtime Atlantic Coast Conference nemeses North Carolina and Duke and won a tense game on the biggest stage in their sport. And they proved an interesting and appealing crew in the process.

There was Frese, the dynamic young coach who left a disappointed pack of kids at Minnesota because she thought she could build something special in College Park. There was Shay Doron, the daring Israeli shooting guard who had been Frese's first big recruit to sign. There was Kristi Toliver, the expressive freshman point guard whose overtime three-pointer in the title game gave the team its signature moment.

But as often seems to be the case, all that success raised as many questions as it answered. The first and most obvious is: Can they keep it up?

With all of its significant contributors returning and a flashy transfer from Tennessee in Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, Maryland is almost every expert's pick as preseason No. 1. Doron is the only senior starter, so it's not hard to imagine the Terps being the preseason pick next year, as well. Frese is assembling a recruiting class that will rank among the best in the country, according to scouts.

"They do have the pieces in place for a dynasty," said ESPN analyst Nancy Lieberman. "Because what they have is experienced youth. And they have a confidence that's not fake."

That doesn't necessarily mean a run to rival those of Tennessee in the 1990s or Connecticut earlier this decade. But the possibility is at least there.

"You've got to dream the dream," said Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. "Sometimes, the dream can't become a reality until it's put out there."

Frese, Yow team up

Frese was thinking big when she arrived in College Park for the 2002-03 season.

"That's why I came to Maryland, big picture, was to be able to turn around the program and then hopefully, become one of the most dominant programs out there," she said. "And having that opportunity is why I accepted the challenge."

Yow saw in the young coach a perfect program builder. Frese had showed she could attract star players with her drive and informal manner. She had shown she could coach them once they were aboard. And she was enthusiastic about the public speeches and other non-basketball duties that would help spread the word.

Frese, in turn, thought Yow was the perfect boss. Not only had she coached women's ball at Kentucky and Florida, but she said she wanted every one of the school's 27 athletic programs to be in the top 10.

"I was like yeah, someone who gets and understands where we can get to," Frese said. "I thought that was a very exciting challenge from an athletic director."

Yow recalled that when Frese saw the floor from the men's 2002 championship win displayed on a wall at the Comcast Center, she asked if the school would do the same "when" the women won.

"I said yes," the athletic director said, "but I was thinking, 'Maybe you should ask me that in about 10 years.'"

Yow wasn't the only one to love Frese's moxie. Lieberman liked the way the young coach could walk into the same gym as Geno Auriemma or Pat Summitt and refuse to take a back seat.

"People don't always like you when you get too good too fast and aren't afraid to tell people you're good," she said. "But I love the attitude Brenda brought to that program."

Frese's program has also leaped forward off-court. Attendance has tripled since the season before Frese arrived and is expected to climb again this year (the season ticket base alone has grown from 2,000 last season to 6,000 this season). Since the title game, the players haven't been able to stroll campus without people staring and murmuring.

As much as life has changed, the odds are against a meteoric rise in stature, agree experts on college sports economics.

Only a handful of women's programs around the country make money. And only at Tennessee, Connecticut and Texas Tech do the women consistently match or exceed their male counterparts in recognition and drawing power. Even in such rarefied scenarios, the women often suffer by comparison. Until recent years, Summitt made less money than Tennessee men's coaches. At Connecticut, Auriemma has won more titles than his male counterpart, Jim Calhoun. But he makes less money and his program generates a small fraction of the television revenue pulled in by the male Huskies.

"I think that revenues for women's sports are certainly increasing," said Brad Humphreys, a professor at the University of Illinois. "But if you look at the revenue models for college sports, most of it comes from broadcast media rights and attendance. In those areas, they're not there yet."

The year before Frese arrived, the women drew 1,681 fans a game, 72nd among Division I programs. But that number has risen every year of her tenure. The Terps ranked 21st last season with an average home crowd of 4,813.

Battle of sexes

But even with the women surging to a first title and the men toiling in mediocrity, the male Terps drew 17,174 a game last season. They are an attendance juggernaut, having ranked fifth or sixth in the NCAA every year since Comcast Center opened. The men produce revenue for the athletic department annually, while the women's program spent about $1.6 million more than it pulled in last year.

Frese has been around college athletics long enough to know that football and men's basketball are unassailable economic heavyweights.

"I'd love to be able to make revenue to help our athletic department so it wasn't strictly football and men's basketball," she said. "But bigger picture, I'm not sure. You would love women's sports to become that. ... We don't have the television contracts. Papers aren't putting us on the front page to sell newspapers. That's not how we're viewed in society. ... I'm more about the mentoring of young people, making sure they have a great experience here."

Humphreys argued that the plethora of entertainment options in the Baltimore-Washington area represents a bigger impediment to women's attendance than the popularity of the men. Most of the sport's attendance leaders - Connecticut, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Purdue - play in more isolated locales where university teams are leading entertainment options.

Seeking crowds, TV

The women do yearn for bigger crowds. Toliver said that until she went to see the men play Boston College last season, it had never occurred to her that Comcast's whole lower seating bowl could be filled with raucous fellow students.

"That's kind of the saddest thing from our end, that we're not getting student support," she said. "It's good that we're getting community support, and we'll stay loyal to those even if other people come. But that's definitely what we want to see, the student support. I feel like this year, we'll have more. That's definitely something that should happen, because it makes the environment for the opponent more frustrating."

Connecticut built its fan base at least in part by getting its games on local public television. With nine regular-season appearances, Maryland will be on television more than any other ACC women's team as part of the league's television package. The Terps are also scheduled to play Michigan State on CBS on Jan. 6. Yow is excited about that, but believes buzz can't always be attained by such obvious means.

"It's all about a sport becoming cool," she said. "And promotions aren't the answer. The answer is what we just had happen. The drama was so significant that it caught the emotion of the public. You can't manufacture that."

Frese and her players figure that in the end, the best way to gain more recognition is to keep winning championships. During a practice a few weeks ago, every bit of criticism by a coach, every exhortation by a player, spoke to one theme: The Terps want to be great. Not good. Not fun to watch. Great.

"We said our three goals were to go undefeated, win the ACC and win another national championship," Langhorne said. "I know that my last two years, I want to win two more, so we have very big goals."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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