Kaila Charles had just gotten back from the WNBA bubble, and after keeping in touch with head coach Brenda Frese and the rest of the coaching staff during her first season, she was eager to see the current Maryland women’s basketball team.
Although Charles couldn’t visit during practice due to coronavirus protocols, Frese invited her to an outdoor happy hour with the coaching staff, followed by dinner with the team this past fall.
When the Connecticut Sun guard sat down at the first get-together, she got her first glimpse of life as an alumnus.
“Welcome to this side of Maryland basketball. After you graduate, this is the fun side,” Charles recalled her former coach saying, still laughing at the memory.
“She’s always been a cool coach,” Charles told Testudo Times. “But...now it’s not a player-coach relationship, it’s a friend relationship.”
The bonds Frese forms and maintains with her players, whether they are coming in as a freshman or retired from the sport down the line, have led her to become the winningest coach in Maryland women’s basketball history in just 19 seasons, with the head coach reaching victory No. 500 against Nebraska Sunday. Frese has tallied a 500-130 overall record (.794) across her 19 seasons at Maryland.
“One of the things that makes her so successful is because she builds relationships with everybody,” Terps’ associate head coach Karen Blair told Testudo Times. “She knows how every single person, you know, what makes them tick. Kind of how they think, what’s the best way to kind of reach them, and I think she does an exceptional job of learning how to approach each person, how to motivate each person...
“I’ve worked for six different coaches and that’s really what separates her is that ability to motivate and light the fire under people.”
Freshman forward Angel Reese initially considered going to school somewhere further from her hometown of Baltimore. As the No. 2 recruit in the 2020 class, she could have gone anywhere she wanted.
However, the connection she built with Frese, along with the status of the program and an added bonus of being close to family, sealed the deal, making her the highest-ranked recruit in program history.
Before the season, Reese talked about how much she appreciated the way Frese made her feel so well-respected in the recruiting process. While she was at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, Frese made sure to attend games, and it became clear to Reese that the head coach valued both her basketball skills and the person she is.
When Charles played at Riverdale Baptist, just about 15 miles down the road from the University of Maryland, College Park campus, Frese made sure to establish a relationship early on as well.
“[Frese] would call me once a week just to check up on me and take the time to come to my high school games and watch me play, whether it was late at night at seven, right after her practices,” Charles said.
Charles also didn’t initially plan to stay close to home, but the authenticity, care and support that Frese displayed stood out.
Frese built their trust and respect by just being herself. Blair, who is very involved with the recruiting process, said that with the Maryland women’s basketball program, what you see is what you get, and what you get is a high level of trust and care.
“When you become a head coach and you become that leader, you have to be you,” Frese told Testudo Times. “You have to be your own personality, to really be authentic and genuine, so people understand who you are.”
One of the ways Frese’s personality shines is through the traditions she has created while coaching at Maryland.
After each game, Frese and the rest of the coaching staff give out “Tough Terps Awards.” Windex goes to the players who have the most rebounds, a firefighter hat goes to the players who were on fire for the entire game, a teenage mutant ninja turtle hat goes to the player who brought the Maryland spirit, and hard hats go to players who went to work that day.
Frese inspires her team academically by splitting them into teams. The group with the highest GPA earns a prize to spark friendly competition among the players.
Each Thanksgiving, new players on the team make turkey hats for returners. On Halloween, Frese dresses up and brings candy to the team during their practice. This season while on a set of road trips in the Midwest, the team did a painting class together.
Charles remembers the coaches bringing in a “Terra-piñata” after each game. Following a win, a player who had a great game or brought the energy was given the stick and put in charge of breaking it. Upon it cracking, the candy would fall to the floor.
“She always kept that fun element in the game and just kept us on our toes,” Charles said.
These traditions and activities are part of the success of Maryland basketball. They build the team chemistry and bring the team closer, which translates come game time.
“Off the court, we love each other so much. So, on the court [it] just makes everything easier,” redshirt sophomore forward Mimi Collins said following a dominant 84-48 win over Wisconsin.
The care and class that Frese shows her players are exactly what former head coach Chris Weller hoped to see for the program following her retirement in 2002. When Frese took over, she had just been named the Associated Press National Coach of the Year while at Minnesota, and although Weller knew she was talented, that is not what appealed to her the most about Frese.
“I thought she was such a classy person. A good coach? Yes, but a classy person. And that’s what I wanted to continue with at Maryland,” Weller told Testudo Times. “It was just that we would have a program that would be run ethically with high standards. I was confident that Brenda would do that.”
In Frese’s first year as head coach in College Park, the team was still in the ACC and she coached the Terps to 10 wins. The following year, Maryland improved to 18 wins.
Since then, Maryland has not won less than 21 games in a season. In 14 out of the 18 complete seasons with Frese as the head coach, Maryland ended with just eight or fewer losses in regular-season play.
In totality, she is 220-75 in league play over the 19 seasons—a 74.5 win percentage. Frese has led the Terps to three Final Fours, 15 NCAA Tournament appearances and the 2006 National Championship title.
“I want these players to experience hoisting the trophy up at the Big Ten tournament. I want them to experience a Sweet 16 and a Final Four run,” Frese said. “The players and support staff that have never been able to do that...I want it for them.”
Frese and the rest of her coaching staff were dealt a wild card when Maryland moved into the Big Ten conference before the 2014-15 season. She remembers being devastated at the news since she had left the Big Ten to coach in the ACC, but shortly after that initial shock passed, Frese learned that this shift was a blessing in disguise.
The head coach grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, about 100 miles northeast of Des Moines, with her five siblings and parents, Bill and Donna. Her family is close-knit and since Frese focuses on building strong relationships in every aspect of her life, she has a lot of friends still in the Midwest.
When the team played in Iowa, her siblings, nieces, nephews and her parents would always make an appearance in the hotel as they were getting ready for their games. In a non-coronavirus time when it is safe to do so, a trip to Iowa means a trip to Bill and Donna’s home.
“My freshman year we went to her parents’ house,” Charles said. “We had dinner, we saw these old pictures of Coach Frese when she was younger. She’s an open book. She accepts people into her family and makes them feel very welcome and so does her real family.”
Around the holidays, Frese opens her home to the team for dinner and a secret gift exchange. A visit is not complete without an appearance from her husband Mark Thomas and their twin boys, Markus and Tyler, who are a steady presence around the program.
With the University of Maryland class of 2020 graduation ceremony held online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Frese and her family, along with the rest of her coaching staff searched for a way to make the experience special for their seniors.
The coaches, Mark, Markus and Tyler headed out to Charles’ house, where she and Sara Vujacic were together, and then made the hour-long trip to Stephanie Jones’ home to surprise her too.
“They took time out of their busy schedules just to put a smile on our faces. We didn’t expect to have our graduation home,” Charles said. “But them coming and surprising us and bringing the whole staff — It was her family, she had the two boys, they had songs and they gave us gifts— that made us feel very special.”
The trusting relationships that Frese develops allow her to offer players constructive criticism and train them in the way that best suits their skillset and personality, which then translates to success at the professional level.
“She would yell at me but I never took it personally,” Charles said. “I think she was just trying to make me better…. Whether I agreed or not, you just know that it’s all out of love.”
Since the start of the league in 1997, 18 Terps have been drafted to the WNBA. Fourteen players, eight of whom were drafted in the top 10 —Crystal Langhorne, Laura Harper, Marissa Coleman, Kristi Toliver, Tianna Hawkins, Alyssa Thomas, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Brionna Jones — played under Frese at Maryland.
During the 2019 Finals, the Connecticut Sun faced the Washington Mystics, which meant there were five Terps on the court. Thomas and Jones were on the Sun and Toliver, Walker-Kimbrough and Hawkins played for the Mystics. Washington won that matchup, giving Walker-Kimbrough and Hawkins their first WNBA Championship wins while Toliver earned her second. Toliver’s first came in 2016 when she played for the Los Angeles Sparks.
Langhorne is the fourth former Terp to have won a WNBA Championship. In February, she announced her retirement from the WNBA and will be joining the Seattle Storm front office as the Director of Community Engagement for the Force4Change initiative.
Following Langhorne’s retirement announcement this offseason, there will be six former Terps competing in the WNBA in 2021. Currently, there are three former Terps on the Connecticut Sun roster in Thomas, Jones and Charles, who was drafted 23rd overall before last season.
Thomas, who has established herself as one of the league’s top stars, just signed for her eighth season with the Sun. And as she achieved this milestone, she reflected on her time playing under the leadership of Frese.
“One of the things about Maryland is that they prepare us to be pros. Coach Frese, she really challenges you and tries to get the best out of you each and every day,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t have been happier with my decision to go to Maryland. That group of coaches really has shaped me to be player that I am today.”
Charles has distinct memories from her time at Maryland of Thomas, Langhorne and Jones coming back to campus to scrimmage against the team or lift with them. She also remembers players returning to Maryland to visit with their own children to watch the team practice and catch up with the coaching staff.
At the end of the day, Frese wants her players to walk away with wins and championships, but it is just as important to her that they take with them the memories they created with their teammates. It’s the bonds with their teammates turned “sisters-for-life” as Frese puts it, that she hopes survives long after their time playing together and her tenure coaching at the University of Maryland.
“The legacy for Brenda is the people. It really is just all about those relationships,” Blair said. “It’s not a four-year decision to come to Maryland, it’s a lifetime decision, and that is very true under Brenda.”