Keith Booth reached for the oversized plaque yesterdayand raised it above his head. The sellout crowd of 14,500 erupted. It was thelast home game for the University of Maryland's Terrapins, and a moment forbasketball fans and players to savor, one of many that have occurred in this42-year-old field house.
But this barn of a building is fighting its age, and many say it must bereplaced.
Engineers and accountants have already determined that it would cost atleast $15 million more to renovate Cole Field House than to build anotherfacility. A bigger arena is needed to bring in more fans and money, and tohelp attract the best players, university officials say. The project hassupport from Maryland's governor and other key politicians.
Though much is still to be decided, William E. Kirwan, president of theCollege Park campus, and athletic director Debbie Yow said yesterday that theywant a new arena that will preserve the tradition and intimacy of Cole FieldHouse. They plan to do that by putting it on campus, limiting the capacity tono more than 18,000, and reserving many of the best seats for students.
Few want to let go of Cole, as everyone calls it. Physically andspiritually, it is at the heart of Maryland's campus.
Students have struggled with final exams in its narrow birch seats. Proudparents have watched their children graduate. Elvis Presley, in his whitesequined suit, drove the women crazy in an early '70s performance. One of themost memorable NCAA basketball championships was decided on the court. Duringthe Nixon presidency, the Chinese pingpong team came to Cole to show off itsfinesse. ESPN did its first live college basketball broadcast here in 1979.Coaches used to live in Cole.
Open day -- and night
It is one of the few college arenas left open during the day, allowingstudents to cut through it on their way to classes, staff members to eat lunchthere and others to watch basketball practices. Homeless people have beenknown to use the bowels of Cole as a refuge.
And though it's officially considered locked at night, there always seemsto be a door ajar, a key passed from year to year, like the one that travelsfrom one wrestling captain to the next. Inside you'll find midnight joggersrunning laps around its narrow concourses. Or a basketball player working onhis foul shots. Former Terps center Len Elmore used to get the night watchmanto turn on the lights for him.
"There was kind of a peace that came over you," said Elmore, who played atMaryland from 1971 to 1974. "All you could hear was the sound of the ballbouncing. You had to use your imagination to re-create situations."
Yesterday at 2 p.m., before Maryland's 93-81 loss to North
Carolina, the old doors to the field house swung open, and a
thundering horde of students ran in, trying to claim the best seats in thethree sections in which they may sit.
"Let's go! Let's go!" "Straight! Come on, come on!"
In waves, all the other pieces came to life. On one corner of the court,the band, anchored by five sousaphones, blasted a swinging rhythm. At theother end, the Maryland dancers, with their spangled halter tops, lined up.
Later, as game time approached, Maryland's players gathered in the dimtunnel at Cole Field House, clapping, slow and strong. "Whooooo-eeee! Crunchtime!" they shouted to each other.
A shooter's court
Former players said that they loved the crowd being so close, that theycould draw energy from them. Former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, who also played atMaryland from 1971 to 1974, called Cole a shooter's court. The background isclearer and more defined than in a larger arena.
And it always seems that more people get in than are supposed to, addingto the heat that almost everyone complains about.
From the front-row seats to the highest ones, everyone has a clear view ofthe court. Some season-ticket holders in the back row said they turned down achance to get seats closer to the action.
"Even if we have the worst seats, we can still see good," said JoanSweeney of Baltimore. In their row, they have room to stand up and leanagainst the wall, and easy access in and out, which many in the crowd don'thave.
That's not the only problem at Cole. It violates all kinds of codes andregulations, from its asbestos to its limited access for the handicapped, tothe rows of seats that are too close together.
"It's a miracle the roof hasn't caved in," said Yow.
Before a game against Duke two years ago, Cole's lights went out fivetimes. About five years ago, the eight electronic scoreboards shorted out foran hour before a game.
The steam-heat pipes leak. There are only four bathrooms off theconcourse, and just four concession stands. There is no air conditioning, andushers often prop open the doors to get air in during ACC games.
Officials have tried to fight Cole's age. They have renovated the men'sand women's locker rooms and put fresh red paint on all the seats.
Curt Callahan, a former student, wrestler and coach who is now assistantathletic director in charge of Cole Field House, put it this way: "It's like asecond home to me. It's old, but it's ours."
Moments such as hanging the jersey of basketball star Len Bias, or thefans spontaneously lifting McMillen and Elmore on their shoulders after thepair's last game as seniors, still resonate here.
In some ways, the building holds the stamp of basketball history.
On a cold, snowy night in 1965, Hyattsville's DeMatha High School upsetPower Memorial of New York, 46-43. One of the New York players was a 7-footcenter named Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was his onlyhigh school loss. The showdown put Washington-area high school basketball onthe map with major college recruiters.
NCAA finals in 1966
The next year, Cole again garnered attention as the site of the NCAAfinals, in which an all-black team from Texas Western (now the University ofTexas at El Paso) beat an all-white team from Kentucky.
Elmore, just 14, watched the game on television and decided he wanted toplay basketball.
"I could read between the lines," said Elmore, whose jersey hangs fromCole's rafters. "When you see Kentucky trot out, this lily-white team from theSouth, with this air of superiority about them, then you see Texas Western,primarily black if you were in my neighborhood, you couldn't help but root forthose guys."
Texas Western's victory spurred many Southern universities to beginrecruiting black student-athletes.
Maryland's own basketball teams, meanwhile, weren't doing well. Except fora brief period in the 1950s, attendance hovered around 4,000. Then Charles G."Lefty" Driesell came. And, students and players remember, it was like magic.Maryland finally had a winning team.
'A super place to play'
"It was a super place to play. I think it still is," said Driesell, whosaid he thought the university should remodel Cole and continue to use it formen's basketball.
But the powers that be say a new $80 million arena is inevitable.
Maryland's three leading politicians -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening, SenatePresident Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. --support the state spending $1.2 million to design the facility. Universityofficials hope the state will later kick in about $35 million. Meanwhile, Yowsaid the university is lobbying corporate donors to pay $25 million to havetheir name on the building. The remaining $20 million will come from athleticdepartment funds, mostly from new revenues from the expanded arena.
"It will seem very awkward to see Len Bias' jersey hanging in a differentfacility," said Miller, who along with eight of his siblings graduated fromMaryland and used to take his sociology tests in Cole Field House. "But justas Memorial Stadium became Camden Yards, Cole is going to have to become adifferent and better facility. It has to be upgraded."
Even players who laud the facility agree.
"It's a venerable place, almost a shrine," said Elmore, a former NBAplayer who is joining the Baltimore branch of the law firm Patton, Boggs as apartner and is a commentator for ESPN. "But it's just outlived its usefulness.
"There's a song, 'It's hard to say good-bye to yesterday,' " he said, "butI guess with Cole, it's time to turn the page."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun