“Facts are facts, and you can’t mask the fact that she’s been to three Final Fours in a brief window,” said Steve Howes, Catholic University men’s coach and a friend of Frese’s who has spent time around her Maryland women’s basketball program.
“I think it’s completely fair and justified” to compare Frese to Washington’s greatest men’s coaches, Howes said. “Those were clearly the first two people I thought of: Gary Williams and John Thompson, resurrecting a program from nothing. Brenda’s done virtually the same.”
Men’s and women’s basketball are perhaps cousins more than siblings; the sports have different traditions, different levels of parity and vastly different histories. And it’s admittedly jarring to mention Frese in the same paragraph with two of the most revered men in Washington sports history. Thompson’s name features prominently in college basketball history; his Hoyas of the 1980s and ’90s were both dominant and iconic. Williams helped erase the stain on Maryland basketball while creating arguably the best Washington sports moment of this century with his 2002 national championship. In whatever order you prefer, they are Washington’s most celebrated college coaches.
But look at Frese’s resume during her first 13 seasons in College Park. This weekend, she’ll go to her third Final Four, matching Thompson and moving ahead of Williams. She has been to the Elite Eight six times in the last decade, something no local program has done since Georgetown in the ’80s. (The Virginia women’s team later accomplished the same feat, although Charlottesville isn’t exactly D.C.) She won the 2006 national championship.
After taking over a program that had two NCAA tournament appearances in nine years, Frese completely flipped Maryland’s standing; the Terps have made nine of the last 10 tournaments, and were seeded fourth or better every time. And each of her Final Four teams has had a different best player.
“Shoot, coaching’s coaching,” said George Washington men’s Coach Mike Lonergan, who has visited Frese’s practices. “I’m a huge fan of hers, and a huge fan that she’s stayed at Maryland, that she stayed there and has built that program up. She’s leaving a great legacy. … I always watched coaches I thought were good. I just like seeing different things. And she was good.”
There are plenty of other coaches with incredible local legacies. Lefty Driesell helped put Maryland basketball on the map while transforming the sport with innovations like Midnight Madness. Frese’s predecessor at Maryland, Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer Chris Weller, took the Terps to two Final Fours while winning eight ACC titles. The late Wil Jones guided UDC to back-to-back Division II title games, winning a national championship. Terry Holland and Debbie Ryan had Virginia’s men’s and women’s teams among the national elite in the ’80s, and Lonergan built a Division III powerhouse at Catholic.
But Frese’s 13-year run at least puts her in the conversation.
“She’s one of the better coaches who’ve been in the area for that period of time, or for any period of time, since I’ve been here,” said Trevor Brown, the boys’ basketball coach at National Christian Academy, who has also attended Frese’s practices. Brown, in fact, brought Frese’s press break back to his own team, where it’s called simply “Maryland.”
“Men or women, it doesn’t even matter,” Brown said. “I like that she kind of adjusts her system to the talent that she has. She’s taken three totally different teams to the Final Four. … I talk about her quite a bit in my practices. I tell my kids, ‘You guys need to watch some girls’ basketball.’ ”
Now, not everyone agrees with all this. Some folks I talked to for this story said it’s impossible to compare men’s and women’s coaches, that they are operating in fundamentally different sports. Others will say Frese is helped by a recency bias, which is probably true. And Frese doesn’t compare herself to local men’s basketball coaches; she compares herself to the titans of the women’s game.
“When I was young, I remember looking up to the programs that were dynasties, wondering what it would be like to be a Pat Summitt, a Geno Auriemma, a Tara VanDerveer, one of those dominant programs,” Frese said this week. “When I was hired here, it was with the belief and intention that Maryland could win a national championship and be the next dynasty. … I truly feel like we should be able to be in the elite of the elite.”
Frese also knows the Terps — a massive underdog to Connecticut on Sunday — aren’t quite there yet. Multiple Final Four berths are one thing; multiple national championships are something else entirely.
“To be a dynasty, you’ve got to be able to win titles,” she said. “That absolutely would be the next step.”
Still, Final Four berths land coaches in “SportsCenter” graphics and their teams on national television. While she was in Spokane last week for Maryland’s NCAA regional, Frese watched Louisville Coach Rick Pitino on ESPN, talking with great emotion about how much it would mean for him to get to an eighth Final Four.
“That kind of brings it back into perspective, because it’s really, really hard to get to a Final Four,” she said. “You never, ever want to take it for granted.”
Which might be an appropriate message to local basketball fans. Some have only tuned in to these Terps over the last week; others will see them for the first time Sunday night. What they’ll see is a team that lost its best player from the 2014 Final Four, but that’s back again, with a 28-game winning streak in tow.
“Think of all the great coaches that never made it to a Final Four,” said Howes, the Catholic coach. “Brenda has taken three very different teams to the Final Four; that’s incredibly difficult to do. Brenda’s been at it at Maryland for 13 years; if she chooses to continue, she’s going to have success that’s going to be legendary.”