The instant Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese set foot into the locker room after facing Nebraska on Tuesday, she was met by a wall of Silly String.
The Terps had just topped the Cornhuskers 81-63 for her 500th career win, and the locker room — adorned with Maryland-themed balloons — exploded as the coach walked through the doorway.
Frese’s reaction, once her players finally ceased fire, was emblematic of her career. She outstretched her arms, corralling the team who had just earned her the biggest milestone of her career.
Even when honoring a personal achievement, Frese wanted to commemorate the mark with her players. She saw 500 wins as a reminder that she didn’t get there by herself.
“I haven’t made a basket, I haven’t got a stop on defense,” Frese said. “I think that’s what that number speaks of, the people that have come together for a single purpose, and that’s winning.”
Since becoming a head coach in 1999, Frese has done a lot of that.
Inheriting a Ball State team that hadn’t finished above .500 in nine years, Frese posted winning records in each of her two seasons at the helm. Minnesota hired her in 2001, and she took the Golden Gophers to the NCAA tournament’s second round in her first year, prompting Maryland to offer her the position.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Frese. She had to weigh leaving a promising squad at Minnesota with joining Maryland and entering the ACC, one of the most competitive women’s basketball conferences in the country.
Frese eventually took the job at College Park, completing her ascent up the coaching ranks. Even as the Terps limped to a 10-18 record in her first year, while the Golden Gophers marched to the Final Four, she wasn’t deterred.
“You better have an extreme amount of passion to be able to handle the highs and lows,” Frese said. “And you’re willing to fight for what it takes.”
Just as she’d done at her previous two stops, Frese quickly turned the Terps into contenders. She’s made the NCAA tournament in 14 of the past 15 seasons, with eight Sweet 16s, three Final Fours and a national championship. After two decades as a coach, Frese has amassed a 443-120 record at Maryland and a 500-150 mark overall.
But those accomplishments aren’t what the people around Frese tout when describing her. Frese’s players paint the portrait of a coach dedicated to building meaningful relationships, not one who cares about her accolades.
“She puts the team and her staff first,” Mikesell said. “She created a family atmosphere where people want to play for her.”
That familial atmosphere has paid dividends on the court. Frese has brought in 13 top-10 classes while at Maryland, and since 2007, she’s accumulated five top-five classes.
Two members from Maryland’s No. 5-ranked class of 2018, Mikesell and forward Shakira Austin, have been immediate contributors during the Terps’ 14-1 start to the 2018-19 campaign.
“Her teams always play hard, they’re always prepared,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff said after losing to Maryland 75-69 on Jan. 5. “They’ve done an amazing job recruiting and getting the right kids in the program.”
As an aspiring basketball player growing in Iowa, Frese often attended basketball camps held by then-Hawkeyes coach C. Vivian Stringer. Now, the two go toe-to-toe in the Big Ten — Stringer’s Rutgers squad dealt Maryland its lone loss of the season on Dec. 31.
Stringer is one of six women’s college basketball coaches to win more than 1,000 games, and the legendary coach had nothing but praise for Frese after the upset win.
“She’s brought nothing less than the best,” said Stringer. “She’s just brought a level of excellence, and it’s not surprising at all that she’s approaching 500. She’s first class.”
After the dust settled on Maryland’s postgame locker room celebration, Frese, her players and staff sat down and watched one last video to cap off the festivities.
Dozens of former players and coaches thanked Frese for all she had done for them during her time in Ball State, Iowa and Maryland. At each stop, she made a significant impact on everyone she worked with.
And for Frese, 500 wins is a lot more than just a number.
“I never got into coaching for wins,” Frese said. “I think the most incredible thing has just been the people, the relationships. … That’s what 500 is to me.”