Brie Jackson has moved countless times for work since she graduated from Maryland in 2003, and with each new desk she has set up, she has taken along handwritten notes from her college basketball coach as mementos.
The notes aren’t from Chris Weller, Jackson’s coach of three years. They’re from Brenda Frese, Jackson’s coach for only her senior season.
“Somehow, she kept in touch. I’m like, ‘She’s stalking me!’” joked Jackson, who served as a senior captain during Frese’s inaugural year at Maryland. “But no lie, she’d send us a handwritten note to say happy birthday, merry Christmas, whatever, and then, ‘I’m proud of you.’ I played under her for one year. She didn’t have to stay connected with us [seniors], but she stayed connected with us, and made us feel as though we had played for her the whole four years.”
More than a decade after Frese won over Jackson and her teammates, Kaila Charles has felt that connection as well. While other schools recruiting the former Riverdale Baptist star had their assistants calling, Frese was the only head coach who did it herself.
“The fact that she actually took the time out of her week to call me, to check up on me, it made me feel like she actually cared,” said Charles, now Maryland’s leading scorer as a junior. “If she was at a different school, I’d probably be there.”
In her 17 seasons at Maryland, Frese has earned a reputation in women’s basketball as a tireless worker, a fierce recruiter and, above all else, a winner. She has taken the Terps to the postseason every year except her first, has been to three Final Fours, and won a national title in 2006 a month before she turned 36. She entered this season with the seventh-highest winning percentage of any active women’s basketball coach, and Tuesday at Nebraska, she can get her 500th career victory.
“Yeah, she’s a Hall of Famer,” college basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said.
But for all of Frese’s basketball acumen, those who know her best see her as a people person above all else.
Growing up as one of six siblings in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Frese understood people as innately as she knew the game. It’s why, on the cusp of another milestone, the 48-year-old has been thinking a lot about the players, coaches, support staff, administrators and families she has met along the way.
“For me, what 500 means is I’ve gotten to be around incredible players that have won us a lot of games between Ball State, Minnesota and Maryland,” said Frese, who has a 499-150 career record. “Just a vast amount of players that I’ve gotten to be a part of in their lives. … They’ve impacted me as much as I hope I’ve impacted them.”
A top recruiter
In her first year at Maryland, Frese decided the bedrock of her program would be getting the right people — coaches and support staff, but especially players. As a 31-year-old with just three years of head coaching experience, she figured she had two options to cope with the fear of failure that struck the moment she got to Maryland.
“I could either stay in practice and coach us up and maybe that would help us win one more game that season,” Frese said. “Or, I could get in the car, get on the road and go recruiting.”
Fear and recruiting were the two things that defined Frese’s first season at Maryland, during which the Terps went 10-18, Frese’s only losing season in College Park.
After playing at Arizona and serving as an assistant at Kent State and Iowa State, Frese had risen through the coaching ranks quickly to capture then-athletic director Debbie Yow’s attention. She spent two years coaching Ball State before leaving for Minnesota, where she turned around a Golden Gophers program led by Lindsay Whalen in just one season.
As Frese suffered blowout losses to North Carolina and Duke, she watched Minnesota march to the Final Four, and wondered what she had left behind.
“My thoughts were, 'What did I do?'” Frese said. “I was in a fragile state that year, an ‘I need to prove myself’ type of state, and that’s how I was driven. It was very unbalanced. I was all about recruiting, always going after the stud, the Candace Parkers and all that.”
Frese traversed the country hunting the best talent and paid little mind to chemistry and behavior, both things she had been taught to consider by Bill Fennelly at Iowa State. She continued that way until one Labor Day weekend early in her career, a rare few days when she was home in Iowa playing on a swing set with her niece and nephew and got a call. A recruit of hers had gotten into big trouble — a talented player she knew had been risky to take in the first place.
“It disrupted the whole weekend, and for me, it was like — it’s not worth it,” Frese said. “This one player should not be bigger than the program, and at that point, it was becoming that. That was the lesson for me. Never again are we going to take a kid that doesn’t fit our philosophy.”
Frese circled back to what Fennelly had taught her and started recruiting in smaller numbers. She still went after top talent, but she was quicker to back off if she found she wasn’t able to forge a significant relationship with a prospect fairly quickly. She started watching how her recruits acted on the sideline and in the huddle, and put as much stock into a player’s character as she did in her on-court stats. Nowadays, she’s more likely to cut ties with a selfish player than with one who has weak spots in her game.
It has worked out. The Terps had ESPN’s No. 1 recruiting class when the early signing period opened in mid-November; it was Frese’s 13th top-10 recruiting class at Maryland. In that time, she has had two top-ranked classes (2016’s was top-rated as well) and three second-ranked classes (in 2007, 2010 and 2018).
The Terps had eight players in the WNBA this past season, second only to Connecticut’s 14. Frese’s recruiting success has landed her in the conversation of women’s basketball’s best.
“She always has a top-10 recruiting class, which means she’s like U-Conn., and Stanford, and Tennessee, and South Carolina, altogether consistently good programs,” said Mike Thibault, the Washington Mystics coach who has three Maryland alums on his roster. “That’s a testament to her and her staff to be able to go identify the right kids, convince them to come to Maryland, and then coach them to get better.”
A balanced effort
After Frese learned a new approach to recruiting, balance became key to every part of her program — a perspective reinforced when one of her twin sons, Tyler, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 2.
Now a fifth-grader, Tyler is cancer-free, and he, his brother, Markus, and Frese’s husband, Mark Thomas, are constant presences at Maryland games and practices. Frese evolved from the woman who spent as many waking hours as possible alone in her car chasing recruits to one who keeps her family close — her parents now accompany her on recruiting trips to the Midwest when their schedule allows.
She’s no longer driven by fear.
“Now, I just want different things to line up for others,” Frese said. “There’s certain players, I said this with Alyssa Thomas — if Alyssa came through and never got to a Final Four, I would have felt like I fell short as a coach to her. It’s a little misleading, because once you’ve done it, it’s really hard to do, for [a Final Four] to line up the right way. But you kind of have that passion in your heart when you see certain players give everything to Maryland, give everything to their school. You want it to line up for them.”
That Frese was more concerned about her players’ triumphs than her individual milestones was no surprise to Jackson, the senior captain from Frese’s first year who returned to College Park on Saturday for the coach’s 499th win. Alums regularly attend Maryland games and occasionally even work out with the team because of the family atmosphere Frese has fostered over the years and the value she places on maintaining relationships.
Jackson didn’t wear it Saturday, but she has a national championship ring, too. After winning the national title, Frese had rings sent to the class that helped build her program at Maryland. It came with a handwritten note.