In 2002, Brenda Frese visited the construction site of what would eventually become Xfinity Center. Wearing a hard hat and goggles, the then-Minnesota women’s basketball coach stood alongside then-athletic director Debbie Yow, gazing over to where the student wall would be.
As the pair looked down into the construction pit, Yow painted a picture of what it could be: Dirt would turn into a basketball court, empty space would change into packed seats, a dormant program would become a national power.
“I just remember having chills go down my spine,” Frese said. “I really could see the vision, and it was at that point I was like, ‘If they offer me this job, I want it.’”
Nearly two decades later, everything Yow and Frese imagined, along with achievements they couldn’t have even fathomed, have all become true.
In her 19-year tenure, Frese has built Maryland women’s basketball into a powerhouse. The Terps have made 15 NCAA tournaments, eight Sweet Sixteens, six Elite Eights and three Final Fours — and notched one National Championship.
And with Sunday’s victory over Nebraska, Frese added another milestone to her glimmering career: 500 wins, more than anyone else in program history. It’s a place Frese never imagined herself, especially when she first took the job.
“I was just hoping that I could get a contract extension. My number one goal was that,” Frese said. “I felt like I was just trying to swim uphill and just trying to show that I could become a good head coach.”
When Frese first arrived in College Park, there was little doubt about her credentials. She had nabbed an AP National Coach of the Year in her last season with the Golden Gophers.
And she immediately started preparing for success. Early in her first Maryland season, she called her team for a meeting. Vicki Brick, a guard on that 2002 team, remembered the coaching staff telling her and her teammates what the new era of Maryland basketball would be like.
Frese told her team they would be responsible for laying the foundation of this new era — that even though they might not be on the team to win a national championship, the work they would do now would set the stage to allow future Terps teams to cut down nets and bask in confetti.
“Just hearing that vision and that phrase was just so powerful,” Brick said. “It helped us all really take ownership in the process.”
The self-admittedly brash and unproven coach would be proved right. In her fourth season at the helm, Frese’s squad won the National Championship in overtime after a Kristi Toliver game-tying three with six seconds left in regulation. Toliver, who played a game-high 43 minutes that night, was emblematic of Maryland’s youth that season.
Four of the Terps’ five leading minute getters were freshmen and sophomores, prompting Frese to use some unorthodox coaching tactics.
Maryland had gone to the Virgin Islands for the Paradise Jam tournament earlier that season. After easily dispatching Gonzaga, the Terps were then faced with two of the nation’s elite teams in then-No. 9 Michigan State and No. 2 Tennessee.
“Coach B’s approach to it … was like, ‘OK, here we are. This is a good measuring stick to see where we’re at,’” recalled Toliver, now a WNBA veteran and two-time champion. “Play without fear, and just compete.”
Ahead of the Michigan State game, Frese offered a bit more incentive to her players. If the Terps beat the Spartans, she would go down to the beach and get cornrows. After a 75-61 Maryland win, it was time for Frese to follow through.
She did, getting her hair braided shortly before the team’s next game against Tennessee and its legendary coach, Pat Summitt.
“I think [Summitt] thought I was half-nuts, like, ‘Who is this coach at Maryland?’,” Frese said.
Maryland kept it close against a dominant Volunteers squad led by Candace Parker but ultimately lost by five. After the game, Frese imparted an important lesson to her young team.
“She was just reiterating that this was a great measuring stick for us, we know where we need to get better,” Toliver said.“You go from high school where you never lose a game, and so you lose one you think is the end of the world.”
Frese gave the team confidence after the loss, reiterating that they would be OK and that the loss was merely part of the larger journey. That journey would continue through a grueling ACC schedule — in which they only lost twice.
During a trip up to Boston for one of those conference wins — a three-point victory over Boston College — Frese took her squad to the Boston Garden, the site of that year’s Final Four. The entire team got stadium passes and went up into the stands, where their coach laid the scenario out to them simply.
“This is where the Final Four is,” Frese said. “You can be one of those teams that’s watching in the stands… or you can actually be one of the teams that’s going to be down on this floor.”
The Terps made certain they wouldn’t be spectators for the biggest games of the year, making it to the Final Four and after a win found themselves in the title game.
There, Toliver hit the game-tying three with just seconds remaining, and after overtime, the Terps won their first national championship in program history just four years after Frese arrived at College Park. It was a momentous achievement, both for the players and for the coach, who solidified her status as one of the best in the sport.
After the title, Frese sent championship rings not just to the players on her team, but also to the members of her first few Maryland teams as well. It took a collective effort for the Terps to reach the pinnacle of college basketball.
And Frese was appreciative.
“You felt like you were 100 percent a part of it, and then to get that ring just capitalized that,” said Terri Daniels, a member of the 2002 team. “It meant a lot to get that.”
That connection between player and coach has remained, even long after players leave. It’s something Frese has emphasized throughout her time in College Park.
“I had her for one season, she coached me for one year,” Daniels said. “She has never missed a birthday of mine. She always reaches out and she checks in on my mom. … That’s just her.”
Frese said it best herself.
“When people come to Maryland it’s not just a four-year career,” Frese said. “It’s for a lifetime.”
As she hits 500, with yet another team that’s among the best in the conference, Frese doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. She remains an elite coach and an impressive recruiter, and if she continues on this pace could begin to breathe the rarified air of names like Auriemma, VanDerveer and McGraw.
But that isn’t what Frese is chasing. The pursuit and the records aren’t why she coaches.
For her, it’s far more simple.
“At the end of the day, someone’s gonna break my record, someone’s gonna break the next record,” Frese said. “For me it’s just the moments that you get to have.”