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Maryland to raise banner for former women's coach Chris Weller on Sunday

Former Maryland women's basketball coach Chris Weller poses with memorabilia in her Silver Spring home earlier this week. She'll be honored with a banner at Xfinity Center on Sunday.
Former Maryland women's basketball coach Chris Weller poses with memorabilia in her Silver Spring home earlier this week. She'll be honored with a banner at Xfinity Center on Sunday. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun)

Though she's 13 years retired, Maryland women's basketball players call her "Coach." At 70, Chris Weller still attends the games and even some workouts of the team she ran for 27 years.

Once, last year, she addressed the Terps after practice.

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"I wanted them to know about the legacy we've followed," said Brenda Frese, her successor.

The players got an earful.

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"I told them how fortunate they were, and to be appreciative of all that they had," Weller said. "I told them how, back in the 1970s, I made peanut butter sandwiches for my players on road trips, to save money so we could buy our first uniforms. We always ate cheap. My team said I could smell a Denny's 100 miles away."

Sunday, Weller will be honored at halftime of the Maryland-Nebraska game at Xfinity Center. A Women's Basketball Hall of Famer, she'll stand courtside as a banner bearing her name is unveiled in the rafters, beside those of other celebrated Terps, men and women.

"It will be very flattering, but I'm starting to get nervous," said Weller, not one to seek the spotlight. When she learned of the tribute, she asked whether she could bring Dottie McKnight, her predecessor and the Terps' first women's basketball coach, to share the moment.

"Being there with Dottie will probably choke me up," Weller said.

The acclaim is "an honor long overdue," said Frese, who replaced Weller when the latter retired in 2002. Weller's record: 499 victories, 286 defeats, eight Atlantic Coast Conference championships and three trips to the Final Four. Nine times, Weller's teams earned a top-10 ranking; on 10 occasions, the Terps won 20 games or more, including her first year (1975), when Weller sought to recruit fans by placing fliers under car windshields at Maryland football games.

"Chris is a pioneer who brought national awareness to the school and to women's basketball," Frese said. "Who doesn't remember the Maryland-Virginia game at sold-out Cole [Field House] in 1992?

"She gave her heart and soul to the program for 27 years and paved the way for today's student-athletes to be afforded the luxuries we know now. You can't envision what they went through to be as successful as they were."

Half a century ago, Weller played for Maryland, a lean, long-haired 5-foot-6 forward from nearby Clinton who led the 1965-66 team in scoring.

"We played in Preinkert [Field House], six-on-six and wore 'pinnies' overtop a blouse and shorts," she said. "We played our first tournament in Frostburg — three games in two days. We slept on the gym floor. It was awesome."

After college, Weller taught at Kennedy High in Montgomery County, where she organized a girls team, then returned to Maryland as assistant coach until McKnight retired. Her starting salary was $9,000.

"I was never in it for money or fame," she said. "I loved the sport, the strategy. I never took a day off but, at the same time, I never felt like I had a real job. We won, yes, but most importantly we pushed for opportunities in places where no one dreamed women should be involved — and every step forward was a blessing."

By 1976, Weller had scraped together enough money to purchase uniforms; a year later, they got warm-up gear. In 1978, the Terps began charging admission to home games. But most trips were still by station wagons and players slept four-in-a-room on the road.

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"I'd go to [athletic director] Jim Kehoe with a wish list and ask for something, and he'd say no. Then I'd suggest something else," Weller said. "That went on for a year until eventually, when he saw me coming, he'd just look up and say, 'How much?'"

Indefatigable and unrelenting, in her third year she led Maryland to the finals of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament (precursor of the NCAA) where the Terps lost to UCLA. All told, her Maryland teams reached 15 postseason tourneys and had just five losing seasons. Weller earned the Naismith College Coach of the Year Award in 1992, when the Terps rose to a No. 1 national ranking for the first time briefly during the season.

"I was a strict coach with high standards. People thought I screamed and yelled and tortured players into winning. Baloney," Weller said. "Once, to boost their confidence before a game, I pretended someone had asked for an autographed team picture and had them sign it. Sometimes I'd have players lie on the locker room floor for 10 minutes and visualize themselves running the court, being as good as they could be.

"I was criticized for having my team run so much at a time when it was thought that a lot of running would affect a woman's childbearing. But I was obsessed with conditioning."

Her superstitions are the stuff of legend. Each year, a player was required to wear jersey No. 12 (her lucky number). On the bench, Weller always sat in the fourth seat (her other lucky number).

"Before a game, I'd walk down to the basket where we were going to shoot, tap my head with my finger, to knock out any negative thoughts, and then tap the court, to try to knock the lid off the basket," she said. "One coach, [North Carolina State's] Kay Yow, tried to cancel that. She'd go out on the floor, after I'd knocked on wood, and rub the spot."

Yow's sister, Debbie Yow, was Maryland's athletic director in the twilight of Weller's career.

"Chris was a trailblazer, an extraordinary coach," said Yow, now the AD at N.C. State. "Kudos to Maryland [on Sunday] for honoring her."

The Terps had mustered four winning seasons in their last eight when, in 2002, Weller announced her retirement — one victory shy of 500. Yow was stunned.

"I was fixated on the 499," Yow said. "I said, 'Don't you want to get to 500?'"

"I don't coach for a record," Weller said. And that was that.

Yow said that when Frese was hired, "Brenda came forward and asked, 'Can I give my first victory to her?' We checked it out, but the NCAA said you can't transfer a win."

Looking back, Weller said: "It was the perfect time to go. New coach, new gym — we were just moving into the Comcast Center [now Xfinity Center] — and I was tired. For six months I did nothing and then thought, 'Wow, I still don't want to do anything.' I didn't realize how worn down I was."

She lives in Silver Spring with a Shih Tzu named Buddy and a cat named Jasper, both strays she rescued. Weller still corresponds with former players, some of whom send her snapshots of their families.

"Occasionally I'll watch a game [at Maryland] and think, gosh, I kind of miss it," she said. "But I'm fine with being supportive. And I like Brenda's work ethic. I've seen her fuss at the team like I fussed, but she's very fair to players."

With 326 career victories at Maryland, Frese is on track to pass her forerunner one day. But that's OK with Weller.

"My legacy isn't about winning," she said. "Like others in my generation — Kay Yow, [Tennessee's] Pat Summitt and Vivian Stringer [Cheyney State, Iowa and Rutgers] — I worked to create an environment where people took women in sport seriously. Otherwise, we'd probably still be playing intramurals."

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