COLLEGE PARK -- It was the launching pad for Len Bias and Steve Francis, the floor where John Lucas and Juan Dixon pulled up off the dribble, and where Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams stomped their feet and ruined perfectly good sport coats.
Not bad for a joint that opened as a white elephant.
The University of Maryland will sound the buzzer on Cole Field House tonight, capping 47 seasons of men's basketball with one final Atlantic Coast Conference game.
It's fitting that the last opponent in the symmetrical hangar will be the same as the first. Maryland was trying to bury its cow college image when the Terps beat Virginia, 67-55, on Dec. 2, 1955. Then the second-largest arena in the East, after an earlier version of Madison Square Garden, Cole compiled a legacy as distinctive as that of any college court.
The last NCAA men's basketball championship decided on a campus came at Cole. It's the only on-campus arena to be the host of two NCAA finals, and the first carried great sociological weight. It never housed a No. 1 men's team, but top-ranked squads fell there a record seven times, and hype over the closing coincides with what might be Maryland's best team ever. Dixon and company can complete a fourth perfect season at Cole, where the Terps are 485-151.
Fans got an assist in plenty of those wins. There was the night in 1971 when a tentative South Carolina team was undone; the environment helped unranked Terps teams knock off No. 1 three times. Better Maryland squads benefited as well. Just two weeks ago, Duke's Jason Williams was bedeviled by the decibel level and Steve Blake. Scalpers got $1,000 for that showdown. With dozens of former Terps greats making a sentimental last call, tonight's ticket might fetch more.
3.2 million dollars, questions
Next autumn Williams will move his budding dynasty a couple of hundred yards north into the Comcast Center, which will cost more than $107 million. Cole's predecessor was built during the Great Depression, when the bill for Ritchie Coliseum was $176,000. The Student Activities Building -- it wasn't named for Board of Regents Chairman William P. Cole until 1956 -- cost $3.2 million, and critics questioned every penny.
Construction began as Maryland enjoyed a national championship football team, but after Cole opened qualms over shaky student-athletes led to an athletic de-emphasis. It was one of the last accomplishments of the late Harold C. "Curley" Byrd, the campus builder who coached football before he presided over the college from 1935 to '54. He wanted a basketball arena to complement the football stadium that bears his name.
"We were in the basketball big time with Cole Field House, but he did it at the expense of other things," said George H. Calcott, a campus historian. "Curley built Cole Field House instead of a library. The year it was built, the university was threatened with the loss of its accreditation. Nobody except Curley knows exactly how the college paid for it."
Running out of the tunnel and into an adoring arena is priceless. Dixon will be the last captain to lead the Terps onto the floor. Coach Bud Millikan gave that honor in 1955 to another Baltimorean, John Sandbower.
He had played at cramped Ritchie, on a floor so close to the stands that players were "three feet from falling into a coed's lap, if you were lucky." But the setting for Sandbower's senior year was far grander.
"We were pretty excited with the idea of playing in a palace, but there was very little hoopla or buildup to the opening," said Sandbower, now a local attorney. "The place looked as big as Texas when I came running out of that tunnel. It looked like the whole university was there."
Actually, only 9,000 attended opening night. From Jerry West on, many top recruits stopped by to gawk at Cole, but few stayed and played. Through the 1960s it was a quiet place -- until March.
The NCAA tournament stopped at Cole eight times from 1962 to '70. CBS analyst Billy Packer started for Wake Forest when it beat St. Joseph's in Cole's first NCAA tournament game. Towson native Billy Jones broke the ACC color barrier in 1965-66 when he suited up for the Terps. That same season, all-white Kentucky, coached by Rupp, lost the NCAA final at Cole to Texas Western, which used seven players, all African-Americans.
The finals of the state high school boys tournament have been a fixture at Cole since 1956, but its biggest prep games involved DeMatha.
Morgan Wootten's Stags played Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor -- who later changed his name to Abdul-Jabbar --in 1964 and '65 at Cole. The latter game sold out three weeks in advance, and produced Abdul-Jabbar's only high school loss. Bragging rights in Washington are now settled at MCI Center, but the best city title game ever came at Cole in 1991, when DeMatha and Duane Simpkins roared back and beat D.C.'s Dunbar and Johnny Rhodes.
Simpkins and Rhodes united as teammates during the Terps' second renaissance, and led a 1995 win over No. 1 North Carolina.
La Salle coach Billy Hahn participated in 176 varsity wins as a player and assistant, but first mentioned wearing a cap and gown at Cole and the pride of watching his son, Matt, do the same. It has hosted generations at graduation, presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower, citizens of the world like Nelson Mandela and even royalty.
Byrd Stadium got Queen Elizabeth; Cole, the king of rock 'n' roll. In 1957, the young Queen of England was the guest of honor at a Maryland football game. On two nights in September 1974, Elvis Presley played Cole. From the swing of Benny Goodman to the rock of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan, a broad spectrum of musical performances was staged at Cole, but never in the summer. It lacks air conditioning.
Ice storms often accompanied the CYO Games, which kicked off the East Coast indoor track and field circuit on the second Friday night in January from the late 1960s into the '80s. Four months before Steve Prefontaine died in an alcohol-related accident, America's best distance talent was outdueled by Marty Liquori in a memorable 1975 mile.
Pingpong diplomacy stopped by in 1972, when the United States played host to China in table tennis. Billie Jean King played tennis and gymnast Olga Korbut tumbled in Cole. It played host to five NCAA wrestling tournaments, and one very absurd challenge match between two very tall men. The late Owen Brown, a forward for the Terps in the early 1970s, got hustled on the mats one day by Driesell, who pinned him twice.
"I went to Granby High in Norfolk," Driesell said last week of the home of the "Granby Roll," a basic wrestling move. "Players would get to bragging, and I would tell them I'd take bottom to start. I knew that Granby Roll. Pinned one of my players just last year. Probably reinjured my neck."
Left-hand turn to contention
Vibrant in its old age, Cole was a quiet child, polite to visitors until its 15th winter. Like a teen-ager that can't control its hormones or voice, Maryland shouted its way onto the basketball scene in 1969, when Driesell was hired a few days after his Davidson team lost a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the East Regional final -- at Cole.
"Lefty Driesell and Cole Field House are synonymous," former athletic director Jim Kehoe said of basketball's status at Maryland. "If it hadn't been for Lefty, the packed houses and the need for a new arena, none of this would have happened."
Driesell fiddled with one of Cole's crucial measurements. The sole concourse that fans descend from narrows to barely 10 feet, but it's 30 feet from sideline to the cement bowl that holds 12,230 permanent seats. Millikan coached in that sterile environment, but Driesell bridged that gap by demanding risers and folding chairs around the floor.
The added seats increased the listed capacity to 14,500. That has been exceeded on several occasions. Everyone from prep prospects to pachyderms drew applause during the Driesell era as the Terps tried promotions of all kinds.
"On Circus Night, we couldn't get an elephant out of the tunnel and it delayed the start of the second half," said Virginia state Sen. Russ Potts, who promoted Maryland basketball and football in the 1970s. "Kehoe was livid. I told him, 'The elephant won't listen to me, you talk to him.' I think that was the last Circus Night."
Tom Roy was among the prospects introduced during a game against North Carolina in 1971. Tar Heels guard George Karl pointed to the scoreboard during the 24-point Terps loss and made his own recruiting pitch to Roy.
A win over Duke in Driesell's first season led to the singing of "Amen," which became to Maryland victories what Red Auerbach's cigar was to Boston Celtics titles. North Carolina coach Dean Smith once told his players at the half that he would serenade them with the spiritual if they came back and won. The Heels did.
Driesell's second season brought a monumental 31-30 win over No. 2 South Carolina. Their first meeting ended in a blowout and brawl in Columbia, the Terps losing both. After weeks of verbal jousting between Driesell and counterpart Frank McGuire, the Gamecocks came to Cole and were "protected" by the Maryland Medieval Mercenary Militia, a group of students playing dress-up. After an overtime victory, students tried to topple the baskets.
"You see kids take down goal posts after football games," said Driesell, whose son, Chuck, then a second-grader and future Terp, was nearly trampled. "That's the only time I've ever seen them try to bend the baskets."
How much preparation went into the slow-down game, in which Maryland led 4-3 at the half?
"I don't believe we worked on it all," said Jim O'Brien, the frizzy-haired sophomore who scored the winning basket. "I went by him [Driesell] one time, and he said let's bring them out of the zone. We may have planned to play at a slow pace, but that became complete dead ball."
McGuire and South Carolina left the ACC, but other villains arrived.
Smith, the winningest coach in college basketball history, punched his ticket to three Final Fours and went 30-12 at Cole. He notched more wins there than Frank Fellows and Bob Wade, who preceded and followed Driesell.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went 15-1 at Cole from 1985 to 2001, the last being maybe the most galling Terps defeat there, as the team blew a 10-point lead in the last 54 seconds. Its bookend came in 1973, in the first made-for-TV college game on Super Bowl Sunday. David Thompson's first visit to Cole quieted the crowd, as the best player in ACC history -- sorry MJ and Ralph Sampson -- leaped over a textbook box-out by Bob Bodell for the winning put-back.
"Thompson was the most dominant college player we've seen," said Len Elmore, the record-setting rebounder whose only losses at Cole were administered by N.C. State and Thompson. "I handled playing against Bill Walton. There was no stopping David Thompson."
Ernie Graham often took a backseat to Albert King, but the Baltimorean had a performance for the ages in 1979, when he dropped 44 points on N.C. State. His school record would be 50 if there had been a three-point line.
"Falling out of bounds in the second half, Ernie buried a jump shot," said Greg Manning, a Terps sharpshooter who later joined Johnny Holliday on Maryland's broadcasting team for 14 seasons. "As only Ernie could do, he slowly got back on the floor and lumbered to the defensive end with that gait of his."
Sanctions to sellouts
Dixon is chasing Bias' school scoring record, but no one got more at Cole than Adrian Branch, who dropped in 1,028 points from 1982 to '85. Twenty-nine came in a deliberate overtime win over Virginia in February 1992.
Jordan and the defending NCAA champs went down a year later, when the freshmen included Bias, whose greatest games quelled Tobacco Road. His cocaine-induced death in 1986 led to the forced resignation of Driesell, who's now the coach at Georgia State. Wade left under a cloud three years later, and resultant NCAA sanctions compounded the rebuilding job that faced Williams.
A string of sellouts and an 85-game nonconference home-court streak will carry over to Comcast, but Cole was less than half full in December 1989, when Williams' first team was beaten by Coppin State. Eagles players were met with incredulity when they claimed they beat Maryland; disbelief engulfed Cole, too.
"There weren't a lot of people here who had great dreams," Williams said. "We had to create dreams."
Walt Williams warmed Cole through some hard winters, and Maryland became known to the NCAA as a participant rather than a host when Keith Booth and Joe Smith arrived in 1993. The third member of that recruiting class was Matt Kovarik, a current assistant who joined Reggie Jackson (1979-82) as the only Terps players to experience two wins over No. 1 at Cole. Both of Kovarik's, in 1995 and '98, came against North Carolina.
Point guard Terrell Stokes informed ESPN's Dick Vitale that "we shocked the world" in '98, as that era's students got their turn to storm the court. During the NBA strike a year later, executives and coaches looking to feed their basketball Jones followed the star to Cole, where Francis was performing his acrobatics. Now the Terps are one Kansas loss away from their first No. 1 ranking ever.
"It is absolutely amazing how this has all worked out," said Gary Williams, whose legacy includes a school record 8-for-8 shooting performance in December 1966, during his senior season with the Terps.
Joe Harrington, one of Williams' teammates, is offering pieces of the floor at www.colefieldhouse.com. He'll replace however many rectangles are sold. Until its fate is finalized, Cole will be used for campus recreation, but the concourse -- 5 1/3 laps to a mile -- has long been a serviceable jogging track. Basketball coaches never had much privacy anyway; Driesell used to roust coeds looking for a quiet place to study.
Cole has provided punishment -- how many Millikan players had to run the steps? -- and center court marriage proposals. When there were living quarters on the third floor, above what is now athletic director Debbie Yow's office, Cole was a flophouse for basketball players on semester break and football coaches during two-a-days.
It has produced three Final Four teams for women's coach Chris Weller, 11 men's All-Americans from Tom McMillen through Dixon and a million memories.
The squad that opened Cole and the 1958 NCAA team, old-timers who gathered at nearby Ledo's restaurant last night, will be honored at halftime tonight. The post-game will include a "ball-passing" ceremony linking former Terps and the holdovers who will move into Comcast. Millikan, 81 years young, will be in the house. Sadly, Terps half his age won't, as death already took Bias, Brown, Darrell Brown, Chris Patton and Taylor Baldwin.
The other third of the three-guard lineup that featured Lucas and Brad Davis in 1975 and '76 will remember them, too.
"I'm really, really sad," Mo Howard said. "The new place is going to be state-of-the-art. That's well and good, but Cole is always going to be my home court."
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