- The Washington Times - Friday, February 29, 2008

About a month ago, Utah State women’s basketball coach Raegan Pebley called Brenda Frese, the Maryland women’s coach. The conversation was more personal than professional. It wasn’t about recruiting, attacking the zone, defending the pick-and-roll or anything else directly hoops-related.

“We’re not necessarily close,” Pebley (pronounced Peeb-ly) said. “We’re colleagues, and our paths have crossed a few times. But I was really thinking about her. I was just thinking about how tough it was for me in that situation.”

Which was, on Jan. 30, 2007, in the midst of her season, Pebley gave birth to a baby girl, Harper Susan Jane Pebley.

Two Sundays ago, in the midst of her season, Frese delivered twin boys, Markus William Thomas and Tyler Joseph Thomas.

Male coaches have plenty on their minds but never this. It’s a safe bet no male coach ever penned the words, “I won’t lie to you. I’d rather be home sitting in a sitz bath,” as Arizona State coach Charli Turner Thorne wrote after giving birth to her second child, Liam, who arrived in March 2001 on Selection Sunday, less than an hour after the Sun Devils earned their first NCAA tournament bid in nine years.

Lots of coaches are moms but not many have had babies during their seasons. Thorne, in her 12th year at Arizona State, is the mother of them all. All three of her sons were in-season arrivals, none planned that way. The oldest, Conor, was born in February 1999 between a pair of overtime wins. Next came Liam and then Quinn in December 2003.

“I’ve had contractions during a game,” Thorne said. “I coached games where my water could have broken.”

Through it all, Thorne, 41, missed only a two-game trip to the Bay Area. But it took a direct order from the university president to keep her at home.

“I never had a maternity leave with any of them,” she said. “Which I don’t advise.”

Pebley, 32, whose daughter was born with respiratory problems and had to stay in intensive care (she’s fine now), took a break and missed a couple of long trips. Frese hopes to return for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament March 23-25 at the Comcast Center, although she did make an appearance on the bench during Sunday’s overtime win over Florida State.

Pebley told Frese she respected her decision to take some extended time off.

“That time never comes back,” she said.

Life as both a mom and a coach will change in incalculable ways for Frese, but what that entails is impossible to know right now. No one has written a book on this sort of thing. It’s not in the manual. The only sure thing is “as crazy as her life was, it’s gonna be 10 times crazier from here on out,” Thorne said.

Or, with twins, 20 times crazier.

All working women with newborns wrestle with issues of balance and priorities and the eternal conflict of job vs. family. But this job is different. It has unique pressures, expectations and responsibilities and greater visibility than most other professions.

“I don’t have a job where you can call in sick,” Thorne said.

Five days after Liam was born, Thorne took him to the NCAA regional in Indiana. Some folks shook their heads and clucked at that. She was blasted on talk radio, accused of being a bad mother.

Just chill, everybody, she replied.

“They travel great at that age,” she said. “In our profession, if you want to be the best, you’ve got to work seven days a week. And parenting? Guess what? That’s seven days a week. You just have to prioritize.. … But I don’t know if you can get that total balance because the job is so demanding. It’s all-consuming.”

Suddenly, there are two families that require constant time and attention.

“You’ve got 14 girls 18 to 22 [years of age], and there’s never a time where somebody doesn’t have an issue,” Thorne said. “And I’ve heard that from my kids. ‘You spend more time with my ‘sisters’ than you do with me.’ I only see them a couple of hours a day.”

If Thorne has any advice for Frese, it would be to “delegate and prioritize,” she said. “Especially in her situation. She’s got one of the top programs in the country. She’s got a great staff. She’s not in her first or second year.”

Frese prepared her players and staff for her absence and new lifestyle, and things appear to be running smoothly. That can prove to be a long-term benefit, even though “it’s really hard because every coach has a control-freak side to them,” said Pebley, who took over in 2002 to help restore a program that was dropped 15 years earlier.

“But I was able to recognize that this was making the program better. I was taking a step back, but everyone else was taking a step forward. My assistants grew. They felt more invested in the program. Our players did, too. And it made me a better coach. It made me more trusting.”

Still, most of the support comes from the fathers. Keith Pebley, a former college football coach who now coaches high school, “really understands the demands of the job,” Pebley said. Thorne’s husband, Will, quit his job with an audio-visual company after Conor’s birth to become a full-time dad.

“That’s been a godsend,” Thorne said. “That eases my guilt.”

Some assistant coaches, who make far less money, have chosen to concentrate on motherhood after the baby comes. At least one had the decision made for her. In 1998, then California assistant Sharrona Alexander (now Reaves) got pregnant and received an ultimatum from her coach, Marianne Stanley (who later would coach the Washington Mystics): Get an abortion or quit. Alexander quit. She also filed a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit that ended with a $115,000 settlement.

Reaves acknowledged it might be more difficult for assistants to handle a job and a baby, especially because of the recruiting demands. But she doesn’t have to worry about that now. Today, Sharrona Reaves is the second-year coach at C.W. Post. She has two children.

“It’s key to have the support of the administration and a head coach who understands that having a baby doesn’t make you nonfunctionable to evaluate talent or bring an understanding of basketball to the table,” she said. “I think some assistant coaches choose not to fight.”

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