Maryland coach Brenda Frese runs one of the NCAA's most successful basketball programs, with a national crown in the trophy case and an Elite Eight appearance this season.
She is hard-working, proud and, at times, quite loud. She appears to define the word independent. But if you ask Frese, there's no way she would have climbed the heights she has reached without help. A lot of help.
Frese's career defines what can go right for female college coaches, and their employers, with the proper level of support. First and foremost for Frese, her bosses at Maryland have been there for her in times of need. They stayed committed to her in 2008, when she was pregnant with twin boys and couldn't travel with the team for much of the season. And the athletic department was there again in 2010, after one of her sons, Tyler, was diagnosed with leukemia.
Frese credits a lot of the little things the administration does behind the scenes. "It's so important when the athletic director and the senior women's administrator send you text messages, or you get the stop-by from them at the office and hear, 'Hey, we heard your son's at the hospital, how can we help? What do you need from us?'" she says.
That personal touch has been a hallmark during Frese's tenure at Maryland. She says the AD who hired her, Debbie Yow, "would drop anything whenever a head coach needed to speak with her." Adds Frese, "Debbie's No. 1 priority was her head coaches."
When Yow left for North Carolina State in 2010 and was replaced by Kevin Anderson, the open-door policy continued. "He's been unbelievable as well," Frese says.
Anderson believes that communicating with coaches -- all coaches -- is just common sense. "If you don't have access to people you're working with and for, I think it makes it very difficult," he says. "I want them to be able to talk about anything."
But the business end is equally important to success. In August, Anderson signed Frese to a multiyear contract extension, a deal that kept her base salary at a reported $775,000 a year. "I had two years left on my contract, and there was a new AD coming in who didn't hire me," Frese says. "Then Kevin re-signed me to an additional six years. That gives you a lot of confidence."
For Anderson, whose previous career stops included Stanford, Cal and Army, it was a no-brainer. "I've worked with Bill Walsh, Tyrone Willingham, Tara VanDerveer, Marianne Stanley, and Brenda's one of the best," he says. "How she prepares for recruiting, her choices in assistant coaches -- unbelievable."
Anderson has established a coaches council, which meets with him monthly, and it has become a forum not just to air issues over things like facilities and budgets, but also to exchange notes. "Getting Brenda in front of her colleagues and giving her the opportunity to share what she does, and then hear some of the things [men's basketball coach] Mark Turgeon does, is very helpful," Anderson says.
On a more mundane front, Frese has been able to balance family life and work thanks to university programs. Her twins are enrolled in a day-care facility located on campus, not far from the coach's office. "It's like a two-year waiting list, so I put them on the list when I was pregnant," she says. "That obviously helps in having them close by."
And that's a key page in a playbook for enabling women to succeed, says Judy Sweet, a former NCAA vice president and longtime AD for UC San Diego, who co-founded the Alliance of Women Coaches last year. Colleges looking to recruit female coaches need to be aware of such programs and sell them to prospective hires. "Women often need more flexibility when they can't work a traditional work day," Sweet says.
The bottom line? While Frese has a lot on her mind, there's a support system in place that allows her to focus on the court and the recruiting trail.
"Obviously, I have bigger stakes now," she says. "If I lost my job back in the day, it was just me. But now it's my husband and my two sons, and I have a son who's battling cancer. To have a contract extension and this kind of support gives you peace of mind to lay your head down at night and know you're taking care of your family."