COLLEGE PARK – Seven years ago, before the flashbulbs and confetti, before the endless phone calls and interviews, Brenda Frese walked into her office at Ball State University determined to brighten her team’s outlook.
Frese, who led the University of Maryland women’s basketball team to the national title April 4, had been on the job less than a month, but self-doubt was already mounting in her mind.
Ball State had finished with a losing record 26 seasons in a row, and the prospects for ending the slump were bleak. The previous coach had left Frese with only nine players and a depleted staff.
Frese had to build a team, and she had a plan.
“One day, Brenda comes into the office, and says, ‘We’re going to King’s Island (an Ohio amusement park),” said Tracy Roller, who was an assistant under Frese at the time and is now the Ball State head coach. “We couldn’t go to Cancun or Key West, so we went to King’s Island.”
It was the first of many team-building trips the basketball team took that year, Roller said. By season’s end, Frese had guided the Cardinals to 16 wins against 13 losses, earning Frese the Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year award.
“The word that comes to my mind when I think of Brenda is that she’s a winner,” Roller said. “She exudes winning. She’s someone you want to run through a wall for.”
Everywhere she has coached, the 35-year-old Frese has won. The secret to her success, according to current and former colleagues, is her ability to foster team unity and push players to new heights.
“She says things that get you going and make you want to work harder,” said Lindsay Whalen, an All-Star guard for the Connecticut Sun of the Women’s National Basketball Association who played under Frese at the University of Minnesota. “She gets you to believe in yourself as a player.”
Frese’s aptitude for communicating with her players can be traced to her childhood. Frese grew up in a family of eight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and all five of her siblings played basketball. Her parents worked two jobs apiece to send them to basketball summer camp each year, as well as give them lessons for whatever other sports they could cram into their schedule, Frese said.
The Frese home hummed daily with basketball, with each child playing 1-on-1 against the next-youngest. In Frese’s case, this tradition pitted her against her younger sister Marsha.
“Whoever was tallest would just back the other player down,” said Marsha Frese, now an assistant coach at the University of Illinois. “She definitely beat me a few more times than I beat her.”
Marsha Frese won the duel in high school, however, outscoring her sister 1,692 to 1,271. They were followed by the youngest family member, Stacy, who played for the WNBA’s Utah Starzz before coaching at the University of Evansville in Indiana.
“Basketball is always at the forefront,” Marsha Frese said. “It’s just something we do and something our family is.”
That upbringing has had a profound effect on Frese’s coaching style, Marsha Frese said.
“She’s very people-oriented,” Marsha Frese said. “It’s about family and making the basketball team part of that family.”
Brenda Frese parlayed her all-state high school career into a successful college run, lettering for three years at the University of Arizona. But after four foot surgeries ended her career, she got her first taste of coaching at Pima Community College in Tucson, Ariz. She was hooked.
She worked as an assistant coach at Kent State University in Ohio and Iowa State University, and then was hired at Ball State in 1999. One of the first moves she made was to hire Marsha, who unexpectedly ended up sharing an apartment with Frese and her then-husband, golf pro Steve Oldfield.
Following Frese’s second year at Ball State, the head coaching position opened up at Minnesota, which had stumbled to an 8-20 record. Frese was the first to be interviewed for the job, said Chris Voelz, former athletic director for women’s sports at Minnesota.
“I judged others against her,” said Voelz, now a leadership gift officer with the Women’s Sports Foundation. “She didn’t have the big name, she didn’t have the huge resume.”
She did have something else, Voelz said.
“She’s got ‘it’ — whatever the ‘it’ is that is going to make her into a champion,” Voelz said.
Under Frese, then known as Brenda Oldfield, the Golden Gophers finished 22-8 and advanced to the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament — the biggest one-year turnaround in the history of the Big Ten Conference. The achievement garnered Frese the Associated Press National Coach of the Year award.
After only one year at Minnesota, Maryland Athletics Director Debbie Yow lured Frese to Maryland for the 2002-03 season. The Terrapins had struggled for the better part of a decade after being regulars in the NCAA Tournament in the early ’90s.
“(Frese) said she really thought she could she could win a national championship at Maryland,” Voelz said.
Yow was drawn to Frese by her assertive and outgoing style, she said, but she soon found that Frese had a knack for discovering what made her players tick.
“She’s a player’s coach, and she’s very much in touch with where they are and what their goals are both academically and personally,” Yow said.
In 2004, Yow signed Frese to a contract extension through 2010 that paid a base salary of $184,540. Men’s basketball head coach Gary Williams, whose team failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, made $1.6 million this season.
“She’s a chameleon of motivation,” said Marsha Frese. “Whatever she needs to do to get her team motivated is what she does.”
Leading up to this year’s title game against Duke, this motivation took the form of an “us against the world” mentality. The tactic was a perfect example of Frese pushing the right buttons, said Roller and Voelz.
“It’s not ‘my way or the highway’ with her,” Roller said. “She makes you feel a part of the team. Really, the kids love playing for her.”
That’s not to say it’s a breeze to play for Frese, Roller said.
“She ran probably some of the hardest practices I’ve ever seen,” Roller said. “She works hard, and she plays hard.”
Basketball has always been an integral part of Frese’s life, but sometimes it consumes her, Marsha Frese said.
“She was very focused on basketball,” Marsha Frese said. “We were at family events, and she’d be on the cell phone. We were like, ‘Enough.'”
After making the jump to the cutthroat Atlantic Coast Conference, finding balance is harder than ever, Frese said. Last August, she married Mark Thomas, who had produced the team’s weekly television show, and now she must find time for the accoutrements of being a national champion.
“Every day is booked out from now to next season. I’m living on caffeine at this point,” she said, taking a drag from a cup of coffee on a recent morning in her office at the Comcast Center in College Park.
Those who know Frese say that she planned this all along, and they know she is already brainstorming schemes for next season.
“Success is all she knows,” Roller said. “She’s going to want more. If I know her, she’s going to enjoy it and get right back to work.”
– 30 – CNS-4-14-06