It’s not surprising their fondest memories would be so similar.
Brenda Frese — then Brenda Oldfield — coached at the University of Minnesota for just over nine months, hired before the 2001-02 season, gone to Maryland by early April the following year. But in a short time, Frese took a Gophers women’s basketball team from nowhere to relevance, thanks in large part to guard Lindsay Whalen.
Frese was 31 then, in her second head coaching job. Whalen was entering her sophomore year, having endured a difficult first year under former coach Cheryl Littlejohn.
Fans all know what happened. From an 8-20 record to 22-8. From one Big Ten victory to a second-place conference finish, an NCAA bid, a postseason victory.
Fast-forward 17 years. Thursday in Maryland the Gophers will be looking for their seventh straight victory. The eighth-ranked Terrapins, their eight-game winning streak ended by Iowa over the weekend, will be looking to stay atop the conference standings.
On the sidelines? Frese and Whalen. Frese will coach against a former player. “This will be the first time,” Frese said. “So it’s pretty cool to see it come full circle.”
And the shared memories?
The big victory in Wisconsin over the fifth-ranked Badgers, and the joyous bus ride home.
A week later, after a busted water pipe forced a game against Indiana to be moved from the Sports Pavilion, as it was called then, to Williams Arena, 11,389 watched the Gophers beat the Hoosiers.
A couple of weeks later, Whalen scored 41 points in a victory over No. 7 Purdue.
“From the moment you stepped on the court, you could see her competitiveness,” Frese said of Whalen. “That kid was all about winning.”
Said Whalen: “She was an unbelievable motivator. She had us ready to go, excited for every game. I learned a lot in a little time from her.”
A memorable year
All Whalen knew about her freshman season was that it wasn’t supposed to be like that, the losing and frustration. So Frese was a breath of fresh air. Whalen remembers relentless positivity. There was less regimentation, for sure. Whalen remembers Frese giving players weekends off during the preseason.
She also remembers the freedom. The Gophers had Whalen and a young Janel McCarville, who was getting in shape. “She let us go,” Whalen said. “We played 2-3 zone and just ran. It was a really fun year.”
Frese remembers Whalen’s leadership. How she got all the players to come to the film session the night before the Wisconsin game in their uniforms to show they were ready.
“She bled for the U,” Frese said. “That kind of player, nowadays, is hard to find. That’s what stood out, from Day 1, through and through, was how much she bled for the U. Her dry sense of humor, her competitiveness on the court. It’s no surprise she was an Olympian, a great WNBA player.”
It was short-lived, of course. Shortly after the NCAA tournament exit, Frese parlayed her national coach-of-the-year season into the job at Maryland. In the wake of the news, her team stunned, Whalen said what had to be said. “I don’t think she played any minutes this year,” she said. “We’re the people who got her that contract, we’re the ones who got her all the rewards.”
“I felt it was my job to step up,” Whalen says now. “I knew we’d be fine.”
Said Frese: “She was hurt, I think. She’d had two coaches in two years. There was a bit of a break, for a while, but one I understood.”
It worked out. Under Frese’s replacement, Pam Borton, the Gophers reached the Final Four in the spring of 2004. Two years later Frese won a national title at Maryland.
Over the years the relationships rebooted, with regular communication. More recently, Frese reached out when Whalen got the Gophers job and when Minnesota upset Syracuse earlier in the season. She offered Whalen advice at the Big Ten meetings. Whalen sent a video tribute for Frese when she won her 500th game earlier this season.
And now they’ll finally coach against each other.
Frese has watched Whalen navigate her first season, making adjustments during difficult times.
“The sky is the limit for her there,” Frese said. “Especially when you can lock down the best players in your state, as well as the surrounding borders — and she’ll be able to do that, given time. She will evolve quickly through all this, making up for any lost time that others would have had as an assistant or a lower-level head coach. Her path is different, but it’s a cool story.”
Whalen? It will be weird, perhaps, going against her former coach. But, she said, probably just briefly. Then she will be immersed in the game.
Frese, meanwhile, will probably have a moment of pride. They only spent one season together, but it was a memorable one.
“She evolved from being a player to a coach,” Frese said. “It’s surreal, but it’s also the evolution of life. I’m happy for her and the state of Minnesota, and I’m proud of her. Back at the alma mater. It’s a picture-perfect story.”