When she enters the gym now, they all recognize her: the great blond talent-hunter. Young players point. Stars pretend not to notice, then steal looks during timeouts. The other college coaches know her too. Some give her a hug and congratulate her on taking a program from loser to national title winner in three seasons. A few shoot jealous, sidelong glances. Elite rivals note which players she's checking out, just as she observes their every move.
She probably doesn't need to be here, a sterile building in exurban Atlanta, to watch 16-and-under girls play basketball at the Showtime National Championships. Brenda Frese recruited well the past three years. Her Maryland team won the 2006 NCAAs with a starting five made up of a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen. Women players don't leave early for the pros, so no one would blame the 36-year-old coach for kicking back.
But Frese runs scared. She has another plane to catch, another player to see. There is two years down the road to think about, and two after that, and there has to be an eighth-grader somewhere who will make all the difference in 2011. So one week she's in Portland and Atlanta and Maryland and LA and Atlanta again. The next she's back in her office, writing, calling and text-messaging, trying to convince teenagers that College Park traffic isn't so bad. "We just won a championship," Frese says, "but I've never worked as hard as I have this summer."
Why? Because Rutgers' C. Vivian Stringer is out there too, and this might be the year she finally gets a good Tournament draw. And Kim Mulkey-Robertson got a huge class last year for Baylor. And Duke and Carolina are due. And there is the next Utah vying to be the female George Mason. And, oh yeah, Geno Auriemma and Pat Summitt want their game back.
Last spring's Tournament wasn't another in a line of Connecticut-Tennessee tea parties. It featured fierce competition, buzzer-beating shots and a second straight unexpected champ. Neither Geno nor Pat even made the Final Four, because players like Terp soph Kristi Toliver and junior Crystal Langhorne and senior Shay Doron made choices different from the previous generation of women ballers. These days, the best players are not only recruited by everyone, they listen to everyone. "When it was just UConn and Tennessee, it was boring," says Doron, the guard who was Frese's first big-time recruit. "I wanted something different."
A very good player was once content to win it all sitting on the Lady Vols' bench. No more. "Our players don't want to wait behind anyone," says Virginia AAU coaching legend Boo Williams, who has mentored Alonzo Mourning, Allen Iverson and Terp commit Marah Strickland. "They want to play." The talent pool has breached the levee, and now it's anyone's game. "The Top 15 teams are all capable of knocking off anyone in the Top 5," says Michael T. White, who runs a scouting service and the Showtime event in Atlanta. "Soon, that will be true of the Top 25."
Obviously, when more teams see a chance to contend for and land top talent, recruiting gets more competitive. In the past, Houston's Cy-Fair Shock AAU team sent a few players into D1 and got calls about some others. But this year, Cy-Fair has one of the most sought-after juniors in the country: Nneka Ogwumike, a 6'2" forward with long arms, great hands and a wicked first step. "I'm getting a dozen calls a day about her," says coach Al Coleman. "Colleges want to know if she's interested in going to school out of state, what's the best way to approach her parents, what her interests are."
At Showtime, Ogwumike battles defenders and sinks a game-winning putback at the buzzer, as Frese and coaches from Duke, Purdue, Stanford, Michigan State and Rutgers look on. If they could applaud, they would. Ogwumike tries to play it cool. "I focus on the game when I'm on the court," she says. "Afterward, my friends and I get really excited about the coaches. It's like we're spotting celebrities."
Anyone who follows boys' recruiting will recognize the scene at national tournaments like the Atlanta showcase. College coaches sit in folding chairs along gym walls, segregated from the players' cheering sections. The coaches pay a premium to attend: $600 in Atlanta for a roster book filled with jersey numbers, phone numbers and addresses. Of course, few men's coaches complement the typical summer recruiting wardrobe—shorts, flip-flops, school-logoed collared shirt—with matching toenail polish. Also, notably absent are the street agents who follow the big-time boys. "There's no money in this game," says Frese. "So it's not like it is for the guys, thank god."
Just wait. Colleges have started to notice an advantage in being able to boast a competitive women's program, so they're increasing budgets to pay the coaches who land the players. Coaches like Frese. "I'm not sure anybody in the business works harder than she does," says Mike Flynn, a longtime Philadelphia-area AAU coach who also runs the annual Junior National tournaments. "She came to our camp when she was 19 and told me, 'I want to be the next Pat Summitt.' "
Frese's drive is what gets her out of bed in the summer. "I'm not a morning person," she admits, though she is up at 6:30. By 7:30, she has finished a cardio workout and a venti café skim mocha. At tournaments, she is always at the gym for 8 a.m. games. To cut down on wandering time, she has assistants map out which courts feature which targeted players at which times.
Frese moved up from an assistant's job at Iowa State to the head job at Ball State for two seasons from 1999 to 2001. Then it was on to Minnesota for a season before she was lured to Maryland in 2002. She learned early that you can't find players unless you look for them. So she reads scouting reports and follows up on tips, but mostly she makes every effort to see the talent in person. "Unless you're there," Frese says, "you can't judge how a player moves, what her hands are like, how she handles herself."
In Atlanta, as she watches a New York team on one court, she spots a 6'6" Midwestern girl sprinting the floor three courts down. "Who's that?" she asks. Assistant Joanna Bernabei makes a note, and a file is born.
Everyone in the business hustles during the summer, and any decent coach can spot talent and potential, but two things set Frese apart. One is her winter recruiting work. "I go to a lot of high school games during the season," she says. "Some coaches don't want to miss even one practice with their teams. I trust my assistants."
Frese's success points to the biggest difference between the men's and women's games. "When a high school boy looks at Duke or North Carolina, he's looking at how it will get him to the NBA," Flynn says. "He doesn't care if Mike Krzyzewski has delegated all the recruiting. With girls, it's different. They need to feel like there's a relationship."
Making time for high school games helped Frese land the key to the national title: Langhorne. Growing up the daughter of West Indian immigrants in southern New Jersey, Langhorne didn't pay much attention to the college game. She'd heard of UConn and Tennessee, but they didn't mean much to her, and it was never her dream to play for either of them. As a member of the class of 2004, maybe the deepest high school group ever, Langhorne talked often with fellow recruits Tasha Humphrey (who wound up at Georgia) and Wanisha Smith (who went to Duke) about going somewhere besides the Big Two. "Coach B showed up at all my games," Langhorne says. "She even came to games against tiny schools. Maryland showed how much they wanted me."
The same persistence feeds Frese's other strength: communication. She offers an open door to players and recruits alike, is comfortable using IMs and texts and is more than willing to speak the kids' language. "Coach B and her staff know some of the music we listen to," Langhorne says. "They know we have lives."
Even Frese's weekly TV presence is aimed at the Big Brother generation. With no host, no studio and no plan, Under the Shell follows Frese and her Terps through their everyday lives while talking about the week's games—a reality show with sports clichés. The Maryland website posts downloadable reruns for any recruit or fan who wants to know what the team is up to.
Not surprisingly, Frese's tactics are often held against her. She hears that rivals tell players she isn't professional, or that she abuses textmessages and IMs. Frese insists she follows NCAA restrictions on player contact to the letter. "I've heard of coaches who refuse to use e-mail," she says. "But if you don't use technology, you're behind. You're giving someone else an advantage."
And the recruiting trail offers perils even to its newest star. A six-hour flight to LA for a home visit a couple of years ago netted a great two-hour chat with a player's parents. The girl never showed; she was getting her hair done. Frese recalls another home visit during which a recruit's AAU coach, a Rutgers loyalist, sat silently the entire time, her back turned to the Maryland staff. Says Frese: "This year we told another girl from that program, 'We know your coach hates us, but please have an open mind.' "
Lately, Frese has been getting her share of cold shoulders. Her husband, Thomas, an original producer of Under the Shell, says a coach he won't name actually pretends not to see her or pretends to take a call when Frese walks by. National titles don't make many friends. "It was a lonely summer," Frese admits.
What really stings, though, is the eternal ability of teenage girls to break hearts. "Last year, we spent a whole summer thinking we were going to get a player, and at the last minute she decided on Baylor," Frese says of center Danielle Wilson. "We'd been following her for years. Baylor didn't even start on her until July, but they had just won it all. Since we spent so much time on her, we missed out on a couple of other kids, too. When that happens, you say, 'Ouch!' But every coach can tell you stories like that."
Still, those coaches would love to be in Frese's flip-flops. The great blond talent-hunter is now the hunted. And that's fine with her. "I never wanted to work hard to get a head coaching job just to say, 'Now I can relax.' The minute I stop working hard, I'll retire." Don't count on that happening for a good long while. She's just found that eighth-grader who'll be the difference-maker in 2011.