Final Four: Maryland Coach Brenda Frese finds the right balance

Mike Wise
Columnist April 5

With her team back in the Final Four for the first time in eight years, Maryland Coach Brenda Frese hardly remembers the tenacious, hyper-intense coach in the old video footage.

All stomping high heels and jolting blond strands of electricity on the sideline. The contorted facial expressions, darting between ecstatic and anger — over some call, some turnover, some perceived injustice perpetrated on her team or the game.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“Brash, workaholic,” Frese says, describing herself in her early to mid-30s in College Park. “I was aggressive. I was relentless.

“Which I guess if you’re going to go hard, you know, go hard or go home. But at the same [time], I don’t think I was as good at talking to officials. I just didn’t have the experience on my side.”

Back when the woman called “Coach B” by her players first rocked the Connecticut/Tennessee/Stanford establishment of women’s college basketball in 2006 — when Maryland stunningly won its only national title — Frese didn’t have the perspective that only time permits.

That perspective comes from having twin boys named Tyler and Markus in 2008; from Elite Eight losses in 2008, 2009 and 2012, the humbling realization that a stellar recruiting class doesn’t always make it to the mountaintop; from nurturing more and nagging less, not merely breaking kids down to build them back up; and, finally, the perspective cancer brings — when one of your children has to have a portal cut into his chest so he can fight leukemia over the past 31 / 2 years.

On Tuesday night, 6-year-old Tyler Thomas, in remission since his last chemotheraphy treatment in December, fell asleep in his mother’s lap on the plane ride back from Louisville. Maryland and all-American Alyssa Thomas had just shocked the favored Cardinals on their home court before a loud mob of about 14,000 to reach their second Final Four under Frese, now an understandably changed woman at 43.

“I know I’m different,” she says, folding her arms on Comcast Center’s auxiliary court, hours before jumping on the team plane to Nashville, where the Terrapins face unbeaten Notre Dame in the Final Four on Sunday night. “I have a child that has leukemia. I definitely have balance now. The family part is huge.

“I think I’m still very confident and brash at times,” Frese adds. “But I think I have a little more balance than I did. I’m probably a lot more fun to be around because I have more interests. I can spend time with my family, and it doesn’t have to be 24-7 basketball.”

Frese didn’t coach as much as she ticked early in her career, when one of the familiar handmade placards brought by fans to Comcast Center read “Fear the Brenda.”

Stepping on the gas and rarely saying sorry, her supreme confidence and tireless recruitment of the nation’s best talent drew the ire of the Pat Summitt/Tara Vanderveer set. Along with Kay Yow — the late, great North Carolina State women’s coach and the sister of Debbie Yow, the former Maryland athletic director who hired Frese — many of the game’s pioneers had to teach physical education because there were only nine full-time Division I jobs less than 40 years ago.

And here came Brenda, talking big, beating the tradition-steeped programs, taking no prisoners out of the gate — until life leveled her.

“The toughest time was hearing the blow that your son has cancer,” she says of the September 2010 phone call from her husband, Mark Thomas, from Johns Hopkins Medical Center’s emergency room. “Your biggest thing when you hear cancer is you think death. You don’t know it’s a curable type.”

With his wife negotiating being a mother and the family’s main breadwinner, Thomas gave up his work as a videographer to be the main caretaker for Markus and especially Tyler. “He had the everyday grind of 31 / 2 years,” Frese says. “I could insert myself in, but he had all the emergency-room visits that kept him there till 6 a.m. Surgeries. Spinal taps. He really lived it out every day.”

Frese’s go-go demeanor gradually slowed. The woman who coached while pregnant with the twins in 2007, who sat on the sideline in an ergonomically correct chair to help with her swelling and sore back — who ensured the twins’ minutes-old mugs were shown to Terrapins fans via video moments after crowning — began to mellow.

Today, Frese’s players have to talk her into being the hard-driving taskmaster she once was.

“It was a breath of fresh air,” senior guard Katie Rutan says, referring to the two-week boot camp that ensued between Maryland’s loss in the ACC tournament and the start of the NCAA tournament. “She got into us. It’s what we needed. Whether she coaches like that or coaches more laid-back and happy, she’s still just . . . Coach B.

“But I saw the old Coach B a little bit. I liked her.”

Frese thought this team had Final Four potential in the preseason, if she could blend youth with experience, the freshmen with the seniors, and get them to play for one another consistently. Though it took until March, implausibly it happened, Maryland knocking off top-seeded Tennessee and then Louisville in a memorable weekend few saw coming.

“I just know this one I just appreciate so much more,” she says. “Because the first time you go through it, you think you’re getting back, just like that. But you realize when you haven’t been since ’06 how hard it is to be one of the last four teams.”

Her team two wins from another title, her son Tyler cancer-free each time his blood has been drawn since December, Brenda Frese suddenly feels immense gratitude for basketball and family and, finally, a healthy balance forged from both.

“We win on Sunday, he’ll miss his next appointment at Hopkins,” she says of Tyler, smiling. “Which I’m sure they won’t mind rescheduling.”

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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