Brenda Frese enters her 15th season as head coach at Maryland this year. She has had only one losing season in her tenure with the Terrapins, and in 2006 guided them to not just their first Final Four, but the NCAA Championship.
A star guard at the University of Arizona, Frese got into coaching in her senior year when injuries sidelined her. She was assistant coach at Kent State and Iowa State before becoming head coach at Ball State and then Minnesota before taking the job at Maryland. The Terrapins have made 12 postseason appearances under her leadership.
Frese and her husband, Mark Thomas, have twin boys.
Everyone’s coaching journey is unique, and marked by highs and lows. How would you describe your coaching journey?
It’s been amazing. When you come in and you’re so green and you work your way up the ladder, and then to have had numerous highs and lows – that’s what life is all about.
Did you see 2006 coming?
Not that quickly. That was the dream and the goal to think we would achieve someday.
At what age did you pick up a basketball, and under what circumstances?
My earliest memory was playing at the YMCA when I was in fourth or fifth grade with the boys, and learning the game there. The first time I tried a left-handed layup it was very difficult, and I didn’t think I’d be able to master it. That showed me how many hours and hours of practice you have to put in to be good.
Do young people these days expect results more quickly?
We live in an instant gratification society now. I’m old-fashioned, raised in the Midwest – Iowa. I want it to be hard, and it’s all about the process. The championship game we won against Duke couldn’t have been any harder, but it was so satisfying when we got it.
Did you always want to be a coach, or did your injury in college open up that possibility for the first time?
A blend of both. I thought initially that I wanted to be a high school coach and teach and coach, but it was when I got injured that it expanded my thinking to, “I could do this at the college level.” I watched coaches in the locker room and on court at college. I always knew I wanted to teach and coach others. I had a passion for the game.
With only one exception, you’ve always produced winning teams. How do you do that?
The interesting thing is that I’ve never approached it based on results and record. When you focus on the process and the work, everything takes care of itself. For us it’s doing things the right way: discipline on the court and off the court, and how you treat people. It’s consistency day to day. I’ve been able to recruit high-level character players from phenomenal families. It’s about finding the right fits.
What is the best thing about your job?
The people, the relationships, and watching the development of the athletes. We just had practice today, and the seniors wrote a letter to their freshmen selves, and I got really emotional because I know what’s gone on those three years. We get to impact them every day; we influence people’s lives. It’s the dynamic of the relationships, the mentoring, and all you get to do in this profession. This year we have two seniors and lots of freshmen, so we get a healthy dose of questions and maturity from the seniors. It’s amazing to watch it.
Do you set goals before season or day to day?
We don’t set specific team goals because i feel like you never know what’s going to unfold during the season with injuries and other factors. When you come to Maryland you already have big time big picture goals, so we kind of know what those are. We understand that we will work hard everyday.
What’s it like seeing your former players in the WNBA?
It’s incredible – they’re living out their dreams. Obviously we’ve had a part in helping them get there, but when they’ve come in and had those dreams of getting to the next level, you’re proud to see them get there. Watching Kristi Toliver, who’s won at every level, win a championship, is amazing. To see all their hard work, because I know how much they’ve sacrificed playing overseas and living out of a suitcase.
How did you get through your son’s battle with cancer while coaching? It’s challenging enough just raising children as a coach.
Twofold…it takes a team on the court and off the court. I was really fortunate between my husband being the go-to person, and his parents in the fold. It was amazing and incredible what they could cover so I could do my job. When his temperature was up and he had to go to the ER, my husband took him there. When I could go be with the team it was a tremendous relief, because it could take my mind off of what was going on at home. When you’re a head coach you have a control sense or a checklist type of personality. For me, my son’s illness really slowed me down. Instead of rushing to the next thing, it was: let’s focus on this moment with the people in your lives versus looking out three days ahead at what you can get done. The biggest thing was to stay in the moment, whether with my team or family.
What have the years taught you about basketball and about life?
First of all it’s a marathon and not a sprint. When you go back to the fact that we’re in an instant gratification society, as you go through it you realize the importance of enjoying the journey. Don’t rush yourself that you need to be here at this age or have this title at that age. Do the best job you can do today. Then do the best you can tomorrow with that presents itself. When you stay locked in to be the best you can be, whether assistant or head coach, then everything else controls itself. When we get caught up in distractions that are meaningless, we lose sight of what’s really important. We’re in it to help kids get better. We’re in it to impact lives.
If you were to have a super power, what would it be?
I would want to be able to read people’s minds. I think I’m an effective coach, but I’d want to know exactly what people are thinking.