It’s Thursday evening, Feb. 4, and Mark Thomas is at home, anxiously watching his wife make history.
He knows what’s contributed to this — Brenda Frese’s 499th win as Maryland’s women’s basketball coach, a feat only one person, 27-year coach Chris Weller, has ever accomplished — transcends two hours on a screen, on a basketball court.
He also knows that as Frese stands on the edge of her record 500th Terps win she does not consider herself in a league with basketball coaching legends.
Someone who doesn’t look up from their work wouldn’t.
“I remember when I came to Maryland and Chris Weller had 499 wins and I was like, ‘My goodness. I can’t imagine coaching that long.’ And here I am,” Frese said. “The pride is the consistency level we’ve been able to uphold here at Maryland. All those wins are a byproduct and result of the talent that’s come before us, the current talent, the staff that’s helped us in so many ways to allow us to be such a successful program.”
Part of how Frese came to 500 wins is through tireless work. Much of her days are consumed with practice, preparation. After dinner with the family, Frese returns to watch film, prepare for a game. On and on, for 19 years.
“It’s just it’s in her DNA, she can just keep going and going,” Thomas said. “Even when she’s dead tired, or even when she’s very sick, or maybe her back will go out on her, she is able to push through it. Most people would get dropped from the pace. It’s something I truly admire about my wife.”
Then, there are the untold hours Frese has spent recruiting.
Frese’s teams have been unbelievably consistent since her first year as coach of the Terps in 2002. Under her hand, Maryland has captured 12 conference titles and a national championship in 2006 in Frese’s first trip to the Final Four. Her Terps teams have appeared in three Final Fours and 16 NCAA tournaments. Her teams produced 16 winning seasons, 16 straight 20-win seasons and seven 30-win seasons.
Now the top scoring team in the country, Maryland (13-2, 9-1) hovers in first place in the Big Ten, as it has done since the season’s start. The Terps are forecast as a No. 2 seed for the NCAA tournament in March by ESPN.
That latter accomplishment Frese created, of course, under the chaotic pressure of the pandemic.
The program’s stability comes down to an organic formula Frese has created in her program, an almost Avengers-style strategy. It’s one that Frese’s mother, Donna, thinks is rooted in her daughter’s days as a high school player for the 1988 Iowa state champion Washington High basketball team.
Though Brenda Frese played with highly skilled teammates, Donna Frese said they all had “different rules” and offered different skills.
“But you can’t have individual players,” Donna Frese said. “I mean, they may be fine and fantastic, but you need people to play together in order to achieve the accomplishments you want to.”
Though Frese has brought 15 top-15 recruits to her program, a player who mainly seeks to be the greatest has no place in College Park. To find players who will embody that spirit of unity, Frese draws from a natural source: family.
Despite the unrelenting nature of her job over the past 19 years, Frese remains close to her family. Thomas said Frese “goes out of her way” to spend time with her children, Markus and Tyler. It’s important to her, Thomas said, that they eat dinner together, and Frese FaceTimes her parents in Iowa multiple times a week, and calls them nearly every day on car rides.
Frese’s father Bill, who has been battling prostate cancer, just turned 89. One of his six children, Brenda thought it’d be nice if he received 89 birthday cards, so she put the word out. In about a month, he’s received about 410 cards and counting, overwhelmingly from University of Maryland coaches, students, graduates, fans.
That, Donna Frese, says something about the atmosphere her daughter’s instilled.
“I think she considers Maryland her family out there, and she knows what kinds of kids she wants to recruit to fit the pieces of the puzzle together,” Donna Frese said. “I think she tries to relate with their parents as well. I think a lot of people who’ve enjoyed watching the program have expressed to us that there’s something about how she knows how to put her family together out there as a team.”
Frese takes on much of the recruiting herself. Her husband said Frese invests hours on the phone, FaceTiming, writing letters to and talking in-person with potential Terps.
Wisconsin coach Jonathan Tsipis remembers in his first year as an assistant coach at Notre Dame sitting in high school gym and spotting Brenda Frese, who’d just finished her first season at Maryland.
“I think the commitment she has in our game, I’m not sure there’s someone in the country who does a better job recruiting,” Tsipis said. “She’s ferocious on that aspect, and those players always improve when they come here.”
Former McDonald’s All American, Tennessee transfer and redshirt sophomore Mimi Collins attested to that.
“It’s amazing. Who doesn’t want to be coached under a G.O.A.T.?” Collins said. “Being coached under the greatest coaches of all time, it helps a lot, learning from all her knowledge is great — and she’s just a cool person. It’s best of both worlds over here.”
That relationship continues once the players are in Frese’s system. It’s why when players talk about their program’s strength this season, they speak of love.
“For me, it’s always been not about the wins, but about the relationships. I think that’s the thing for me, for that many wins, the relationships you’ve had with so many people that you’ve been able to impact,” Frese said.
Frese and her husband don’t talk about the milestone wins, except for one thing. When it’s coming up — win 300, 400 and so on — Thomas runs to the bank and pulls out cash.
“That way, if she reaches a milestone, she likes to reward her staff,” Thomas said. “Say if she reaches 300, I give her cash and she gives them each $300. She tries to take care of her people. … If you listen to her press conferences, she never really gives herself credit. It’s always about the players, the staff whoever — it’s always redirected.”
Thomas used to remind his wife that it’s OK to hype herself every now and then to the media. He surrendered that effort a while ago.
“She’ll never do it. It’s just not who she is. It’s always about other people,” Thomas said. “In a world where we see a lot of egos, not just in sports, but all around, she’s the exception to that.”
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