COLLEGE PARK — Two weeks ago, just days before the top-seeded Maryland women's basketball team would play undefeated Princeton in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Brenda Frese showed up to a team meeting with a can of salt-and-vinegar Pringles. The flavor was important, considered. Like so many of the flourishes in her motivational mosaic, it was no accident.
Around the room the Terps coach went, talking about disrespect and rankings. Then she reached into her tube of stackable snacks, took out a single Pringle and stood before a player, like a priest offering host during Communion.
"We were just kind of like: 'What's going on?'" redshirt junior guard Brene Moseley recalled thinking Thursday.
The message wasn't exactly on the nose; it was a few inches away. By the time Frese was done, each player had an actual chip on her shoulder, their coach again briefly having turned into Tony Robbins. The hoopla over the eighth-seeded Tigers, the predictions of Maryland's early demise, the seeming forgetfulness about last season's Final Four run — it all had left Frese a little "salty," Moseley said. Which might explain why, say, sour-cream-and-onion Pringles were overlooked.
"That's exactly who she is," said Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly, who hired Frese as a Cyclones assistant in 1996 and who will be in Tampa, Fla., to see the Terps (34-2) take on two-time defending national champion Connecticut (36-1) in the Final Four on Sunday. "Brenda will be the only coach in the country that's a No. 1 seed and make her team feel like they're the underdog."
Moseley ate the chip. The team digested the lesson. And Princeton, which had won its first 31 games by an average of 24.4 points, was chewed up and spit out at Xfinity Center, 85-70.
Afterward, in a jubilant locker room where a life-size cutout of President Barack Obama, who had picked the Tigers to win, now stood adorned with a No. 20 Maryland jersey, the Terps finished off the can of Pringles. That's the thing about Frese's speeches: They tend to linger.
Especially when enshrined in the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame. Back in 2006, Frese, a former Arizona guard whose self-described shyness gave a communications course's public-speaking requirement all the appeal of a root canal, had taken Maryland to the brink of the big time.
That February, the sixth-ranked Terps traveled to Carmichael Auditorium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Before they faced unbeaten and No. 1 North Carolina, Frese looked around the visitors' locker room.
"Tonight is our night," she said. "And sitting in this locker room is a bunch of stars. Just like what I have here in my pocket."
Frese smiled, reached into her jacket and, with all the hokey artistry of a celebrity endorsement, pulled out a pack of unwrapped Starburst. The team chuckled, as if to acknowledge: Yeah, Coach really went deep this time.
"A bunch of stars are what sit in this locker room," Frese continued. "There's a lot of different flavors in here, is there not? We're going to come out — we're going to burst out here with a lot of energy."
Maryland won in overtime, 98-95, and cut down the nets at Boston's TD Banknorth Garden nearly two months later, the program's first national title finally claimed.
During a long-ago recruiting visit to Knoxville, Tenn., Frese had visited the city's Hall of Fame, where she replayed iconic speeches from the sport's biggest coaches, legends who soon would be peers. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think that, one day, mine would be up there," Frese said. Now, of course, one is: Her "Starburst" soliloquy, Hall of Fame director of operations Josh Sullivan said, is part of the museum's "Modern Locker Room" exhibit, a neighbor to names like Summitt and Auriemma.
To hear Frese's players describe it, their coach, nearing the end of her 13th season in College Park, has learned how to work miracles out of the mundane. Among the unlikely sources of inspiration for her pep talks: a podcast, a neighbor, a shower and her 7-year-old son Tyler. And yet …
"She always seems to tie in something that keeps me engaged," sophomore guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough said. "I know sometimes my mind drifts, but she seems to always keep me engaged."
But opening up her program's pregame to TV cameras, as Frese often does, can leave her open to criticism. Some Tennessee partisans were riled up when, before a Sweet 16 meeting last season, they watched Frese say of their eight-time NCAA champion program: "Everyone wants to sit down, and they want to kiss the ring. They want to bow down to the name on the chest of Tennessee. Well, after this game … they're going to know our name."
Postgame, her first words to the gathered Terps, hollered amid flying hair and stomping feet, left no doubt as to the game's result: "You think they know our name now!?"
"I think everybody knows," Frese said Thursday, "when you're in those elements, you're always going to have those that are for Maryland and those that are against. My No. 1 concern in all that is just making sure that our team is ready."
But how, then, do you ready for a Huskies team dead set on taking a torch to every opponent?
When Connecticut won the title two seasons ago, the Terps played them twice. In an early-season Jimmy V Classic matchup in Hartford, Frese put a diaper on a whiteboard. It was a message that did not need much explanation.
"If anybody needs to put this on, if anybody's going to pee their pants," director of player development Katie Fowler recalled, "here's your chance."
But steeled nerves and cool heads can go only so far. Maryland lost that day, 63-48. Its season ended in the Sweet 16, the Huskies winning their second meeting by 26.
Sometimes, Fennelly said, the stakes are so clear, they need no explanation. Or potato chips.
"I can honestly see her going and telling them to just go out and play," Fennelly said.