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Brenda Frese, closing in on win No. 500, has made Maryland women’s basketball a juggernaut

Maryland Coach Brenda Frese can get win No. 499 and tie Chris Weller for the program record when the Terrapins host Wisconsin on Thursday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Chris Weller retired in 2002 as the winningest coach in Maryland women’s basketball history, racking up 499 wins and milestone after milestone as the women’s game grew into a pillar of collegiate athletics. That number, though, bothered 31-year-old Brenda Frese, Weller’s young, brash replacement. The digit was one shy of 500, a round number with a satisfying significance.

So Frese set out to find that 500th win for Weller, asking permission for the former coach to take over the Terrapins for one more game. Compliance officials denied the request.

Nineteen seasons later, Frese sits at 498 wins, with a game Thursday at home against Wisconsin that could bring her even with Weller. And Frese, now 50, would still rather talk about Weller’s 499 than her own accomplishments.

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Brenda was adamant about it,” former Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow said. “She treated Coach Weller with a tremendous degree of respect and honor.I don’t know anybody that would do that.

“Coaches don’t give up wins, do they?”

Those types of stories are typically the first things those close with Frese want to discuss when talking about the coach. The accomplishments speak for themselves. She was 35 when she led the Terrapins to the national title in 2006, becoming the fifth-youngest coach to accomplish the feat. Frese has three Final Four appearances, was named national coach of the year in 2002 and conference coach of the year five times across three leagues and developed seven conference players of the year.

Television analyst Christy Winters-Scott, a Terrapin under Weller, remembers Frese offering a ride home with the team from Michigan after Winters-Scott was in danger of missing senior day as coach of the South Lakes High girls’ team. Seattle Storm forward Crystal Langhorne chuckled at Frese needing a wheelchair to move around when she was pregnant with twins but insisting on continuing to coach. Athletic Director Damon Evans points to the way she incorporates players into her actual family. Then there was the strength she showed when she continued to coach as her then-2-year-old son Tyler was diagnosed and treated for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

For a basketball coach, those in her atmosphere need a bit of prodding to examine Frese’s on-court acumen.

“Brenda doesn’t do stuff for Brenda,” Weller said. “Brenda does things for the right reasons. She wants to try to achieve excellence and help other people learn how to achieve excellence.

“I just think that you’ve got to consider her as the total person. She’s not just a coach.”

Yow only knew her as a coach when she began searching for Weller’s replacement in 2002. Frese was a young hotshot at the University of Minnesota, where she had just been named national coach of the year after taking a Golden Gophers program coming off seven consecutive losing seasons to the NCAA tournament with a 22-8 record. Yow started her homework and saw Frese had gone 35-22 with two winning seasons at Ball State, which hadn’t had a winning record in its previous nine seasons. Despite Frese having just three seasons of experience as a head coach, Yow saw her as an overachiever who quickly turns around downtrodden programs.

“The whole group understood she was special,” Yow said.

Minnesota didn’t want to lose her. A bidding war ensued after the Gophers offered a raise. Maryland responded with another offer. Yow went to bed at the men’s Final Four in Atlanta not knowing Frese’s decision, but she got up in the middle of the night with the faxed agreement slipped under her door.

At the time Frese was hired, the Terps had been to the NCAA women’s tournament only twice in the previous nine seasons. In her second season in College Park, she had them in the second round. She won it all in her fourth season and has missed the tournament only once since. Fourteen players have been drafted into the WNBA under Frese.

Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program, and that’s where Frese shines.

Dynamic sophomores Ashley Owusu and Diamond Miller are powering an explosive Maryland offense

“She’s relentless when it comes to recruiting,” Evans said. “She’s going to get out there and get after it. And I believe the prospective student-athletes and their parents see that [if] she’s that relentless when she’s recruiting, man, what is she going to do out there when she’s coaching and things of that nature?

“She understands how to build relationships. She finds what makes players tick. … She’s able to go in there with a track record of saying we’ve had success here at Maryland. Let me lay this national championship and all these Elite Eights and Sweet 16s and Final Fours out there before you.”

Langhorne described a rare energy and passion from Frese that comes across in the recruiting process and a “spark” that motivates players. But she can also use alums Kristi Toliver (a three-time WNBA all-star), Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Tianna Hawkins, who have WNBA championship rings, as examples of what could be. Or two-time all-star Alyssa Thomas. Or Langhorne, a two-time all-star with two titles.

Current Maryland starter Chloe Bibby, who transferred from Mississippi State during the offseason, said Frese was the first to call when she entered the transfer portal.

“When someone like Brenda reaches out, which is what she did to Chloe, well, I think that’s it, really,” said Bibby’s father, Adrian.

Chloe Bibby has gone from Australian netball to Maryland hoops. The next stop is the WNBA.

Hall of Famer and former Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw watched Frese and her program from afar for years as McGraw grew into the seventh-winningest coach in NCAA history. She put Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma and former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt at the top of the all-time coaching hierarchy but noted Frese has plenty of years and wins left to add to her legacy. The longevity, particularly in today’s game, is as impressive to McGraw as how she has gone about her business.

“Brenda can point to all those players that she has in the league and say, this is the formula, this is what you do,” McGraw said. “And so certainly they know that by coming there, they have a good chance of fulfilling their dreams and making it to the league.”

The No. 10 Terps (12-2, 8-1) continue to blaze through the Big Ten, sitting atop the league entering Thursday’s home game against Wisconsin (4-11, 1-11). The success is even more impressive considering they lost five of the top six scorers from last season’s team that went 28-4, won the Big Ten tournament and ended the season on a 17-game winning streak before the coronavirus pandemic struck. There has been some criticism surrounding several players who have transferred over the years, but Winters-Scott pointed to this season’s success as proof that the issues may not have been with the program.

Frese said she has never been about chasing accolades, but she acknowledges a competitive fire that continues to burn. Her success isn’t singularly measured in wins and losses, she says, but rather in the joy and satisfaction in seeing players accomplish goals. And there’s pride in a coaching tree of head coaches and assistants that is spread across the country 16 people deep.

“The bigger picture is [winning] can impact players, staff, support staff for their next whatever,” Frese said. “Hopefully for me, this is where I retire, finish my career. And obviously I’m competitive as can be. I love to win. You know, in a healthy way. But ultimately, I really value how can I give life lessons to our team that have nothing to do with basketball? I love when alumni will come back and say: ‘This still plays in my head. You giving me this motivation or this saying.’

“And so I think that’s the coolest part is with some things that have nothing to do with basketball, but it’s like preparing them with some of the great things I was taught from my family and my parents to help them prepare them for their journey. … I don’t have to win another game at Maryland to be fulfilled. Obviously, I love to win, but for me, it’s so much more the people and the relationships that you get to have every single day.”

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