TAMPA, Fla. (TNS) — On the surface it would seem the coaching journeys of Geno Auriemma and Brenda Frese have almost nothing in common.
Auriemma was bitten by the basketball bug growing up in Norristown. Pennsylvania, a mere 20 miles from hoops-crazy Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Frese cut her teeth in the Mid-American Conference coaching circles, first as an assistant at Kent State and then a two-year run as the Ball State head coach.
However, a timeline of their rise to national prominence displays a much faster trajectory than either one could have possibly imagined.
Auriemma left the comfort of an assistant coaching gig at national power Virginia to take over a UConn program with one winning season in its history. He had the Huskies in the Final Four six years after officially becoming their head coach in a local Dunkin’ Donuts in 1985.
“In the beginning it was an opportunity to be a part of something,” Auriemma said of his early recruiting pitch. “The kids, their other choices weren’t necessarily great choices in terms of they weren’t the kind of players that were going to help you win a national championship initially. They weren’t the kind of players that were turning down national championship-type programs to come to play at the University of Connecticut.
“The kids that we got were the ones that wanted to be on the ground floor of something, wanted to play a lot and believed in what we were trying to do. We didn’t have much to offer in terms of facilities or recognition, so it was Chris Dailey and I going around and trying to sell them on what we wanted to build.”
In 1991, led by three-time Big East Player of the Year Kerry Bascom, it all began to change. The Huskies reached the Final Four and suddenly had more of an ability to go after the top players in New England, the tri-state area and other portions of the Eastern seaboard.
Rebecca Lobo was followed to Storrs by Jen Rizzotti, Kara Wolters and Nykesha Sales. It resulted in an undefeated season and national championship in 1995.
“It took a while and we finally got to the Final Four in 1991,” Auriemma said. “It was only six years after we got here and then things kind of started to open up after that.
“I think winning that national championship in 1995, we started getting kids from outside the Northeast. In ‘96, ‘97, ‘98, that’s when we realized that we could get involved with the best players in the country. People knew who you were. We had created a little bit of a brand. The way the ‘95 season unfolded, the mystique around that team, I think it was after that we realized that we could be pretty special.”
Frese’s odyssey to the top of the women’s basketball world didn’t take that long. Frese had the advantage of taking over a more established program at Maryland. Still, the prospect of winning a national title in year No. 4 seemed like a long-shot proposition to say the least.
However, with future WNBA players Crystal Langhorne, Kristi Toliver, Laura Harper and Marissa Coleman on a young but talented Maryland roster, the Terrapins accomplished just that.
Frese proved to be more than a one-hit wonder. Her Maryland teams won more than 30 games in three of the next four seasons and now are in the Final Four for the second year in a row.
“After winning the national championship, I felt like we were able to recruit probably a smaller, elite-level pool of players,” Frese said. “So I think when you’re able to do that, that allows you to kind of put those pieces together to help gel; to hopefully allow you to be able to have success on a consistent basis.
“I always knew when I took the Maryland job that I felt like it could be a national power-type of program. In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think we would win a national championship in four years. Definitely the timetable was sped up in terms of how it unfolded and how it took place. We were just really fortunate that we had so many great, elite players in our backyard and in our region that we were able to sell our vision to.”