Brenda Frese used to live life in a perpetual hurry, charging from one basketball game to the next in a frantic rush toward the elite ranks of college coaching. It was as if the world had been reduced to the orange globe in her hands, and she was content to stay firmly within its orbit.
She got what she wanted, catapulting from one glorious season with the Gophers in 2001-02 to a 13-year reign among the elite at Maryland. Eventually, she outgrew that narrow universe — which is why Frese planned to spend Saturday night among a posse of family and friends at a festive dinner, on the eve of her return to Williams Arena. “The old me would not have done that,” Frese said, three days before Sunday’s Big Ten contest between her Terrapins and the Gophers. “I would have been up in my hotel room, watching film, watching one more game.”
This is still a business trip for Frese’s 12th-ranked team, which is favored to win the Big Ten title in its maiden voyage around the league. But after remarrying, giving birth to twin boys and seeing son Tyler through three years of treatment for leukemia, she has come to appreciate what lies beyond the gym.
Frese’s sharp focus set the Gophers on a path to progress and transformed Maryland into a powerhouse that won the 2006 NCAA championship. Now that she has made room for life outside basketball, she is particularly excited about the Terrapins’ move from the Atlantic Coast Conference to the Big Ten.
Her speedy, dynamic team has had to adapt to new rivals in a more physical league, a challenge that has rejuvenated her. Frese also is looking forward to the frequent trips to the Midwest, with plans to bring sons Tyler and Markus Thomas along so they can spend time with relatives.
“I think I’ve completely changed,” said Frese, whose team is 12-2 overall and 3-0 in the Big Ten. “Having had a family, having had a child go through cancer, there’s no question that made me more at peace and in harmony. I know that sounds corny, but I’m taking things at a slower pace and just appreciating moments.”
Yet longtime friend Bill Fennelly said anyone who thinks Frese has gone soft does so at their own peril.
“She still has the mind-set that nothing other than success is going to satisfy her,” said the Iowa State coach, who mentored Frese when she was a Cyclones assistant from 1995-1999. “But what Brenda sees now is that you can still be great, still be competitive, still be a tireless worker, and she can share that with her husband and boys. And now, she can come home to the Big Ten and share that with her family. I think that makes this really, really special for her.”
That same game
The Terrapins have roared through the first three games of the Big Ten schedule, winning by an average margin of 20.3 points. Fifth-year senior Laurin Mincy, who leads them with 14.3 points per game, said this year’s roster is more versatile and athletic than the team that made it to the Final Four last spring.
The Frese fundamentals, though, remain the same: defend, run and rebound. That formula has taken the Terps to 10 NCAA tournament appearances in the past 11 years, and it provided the blueprint for her swift revival of the Gophers. Frese — who used her first husband’s surname, Oldfield, while at the U — was named national coach of the year in 2002 after engineering the largest one-year turnaround in Big Ten history, guiding the Gophers to a 22-8 season and their second appearance in the NCAA tournament just one year after they finished 8-20.
Sunday’s game marks her first return to Williams Arena since she left for Maryland after that lone season in Minneapolis. Though her departure bruised the feelings of many players and fans, Frese said she remains fond of the Gophers and still follows them. Guard Lindsay Whalen, the star of that turnaround, credited Frese with instilling the confidence, trust and structure the Gophers needed to blossom.
“She just has this knack of giving a team confidence, and I think it comes from her own confidence in herself,” Whalen said. “She gives a team the feeling they can’t be beaten. I remember going into every game thinking we were going to win.”
Frese chose to take on a downtrodden Maryland program after being wooed by Debbie Yow, then the Terrapins’ athletic director. Yow’s dream was to develop Maryland into a national power, and she gave Frese the resources and support to make it happen.
By mining the talent-rich East Coast for players who could thrive in her fast, fun style, Frese put the Terrapins on the fast track and finished a 34-4 season with the 2006 NCAA title. With her 2005 marriage to Mark Thomas, she also began to move past an identity that was completely consumed by basketball.
“I was young, I was brash, I was confident,” she said of her early days as a head coach, when she moved from Ball State to the Gophers to Maryland in four years. “I didn’t have perspective or balance. I was on to the next game, the next practice, the next competition.”
Frese gave birth to Markus and Tyler in 2008. Two years later, Tyler was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and began three years of chemotherapy.
Today, Tyler is a healthy and happy boy approaching the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis, with hopes that he will be declared cancer-free in May. He and Markus often accompany their mother to practices and travel on the team charter, and their roles as little brothers to Maryland’s players have created a warm atmosphere around the program.
Mincy said that Frese’s dual nature, as a caring mom and a driven, passionate coach, is a powerful draw for players. “She’s a really family-oriented person,” Mincy said. “She always makes it fun; we work hard, but she’s not always screaming and yelling. And we love having the boys around.”
At home in the Big Ten
In a sense, Frese said, Maryland’s initial season in the Big Ten brings her full circle. Even before her year with the Gophers, she knew the conference well from her childhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. With the University of Iowa only 30 miles away, she often went to Iowa City to watch the Hawkeyes and attend basketball camps run by C. Vivian Stringer — who now coaches at Rutgers, which also joined the Big Ten this year.
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings, who has known Frese for a few years, said Maryland will lend a fresh look to the league. “I think they bring a much different style,” she said. “Rather than the traditional slow the ball down and set it up, they bring a very athletic team, probably the most athletic in our conference.”
The Terrapins also will bring a flurry of Freses to the Twin Cities this weekend. Parents Bill and Donna will be there, as will some of Brenda’s five siblings and their children. And the fun won’t be limited to the dinner party Saturday; as a surprise for her players, Frese arranged for them to attend the Timberwolves game against San Antonio.
It’s not what she would have done years ago. But she’s certain it will be much more memorable than holing up in a hotel room, watching one more game film.
“It can be tunnel vision with basketball,” Frese said. “That’s where I’ve changed as a person. I can now appreciate that we work extremely hard. But I’m also going to appreciate the balance of family and friends, and take those windows when I can.’’