Former Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams first walked into Cole Field House 50 years ago. A high school senior at the time, Williams had been invited to College Park from his home in South Jersey by coach Bud Millikan to watch the 1963 NCAA tournament East Regional.
"I had seen the Palestra in Philadelphia, which was 9,000 [capacity], but this was 14,000," Williams recalled this week. "I walked in from the street on the top level. It kind of took your breath away."
As much as Williams liked the school and its coach, he fell in love with what was then an 18-year-old building that was among the best and biggest college basketball venues in the country. A half-century later, the love affair between Williams and Cole Field House has outlasted his own career.
Williams, Lefty Driesell and other Maryland men's and women's basketball luminaries will return Friday night when the teams hold Maryland Madness at the venerable building, which has been sold out. The doors will open at 5:30 p.m. for an autograph session, which will be followed by an alumni game and intrasquad scrimmages for Mark Turgeon's current men's team and Brenda Frese's women's team.
It marks the first major basketball event held at Cole Field House since the teams moved to Comcast Center after the 2001-2002 season.
"It was unique," Williams said. "There's very few, probably only a handful of other buildings [that compare to it]: Pauley Pavilion [at UCLA], Cameron [Indoor Stadium at Duke], Allen Field House [at Kansas]. What building had two Final Fours [played there]? There was no more historic game played [than the 1966 championship game between Kentucky and Texas-Western]."
Turgeon grew up cherishing a similar tradition at Kansas and later played for the Jayhawks. He said this week that even he has been surprised by the level of excitement among fans since the announcement was made last month to hold Maryland Madness — the continuation of the Midnight Madness event started by Driesell in 1971 — at Cole Field House.
"I think it's a little more than I anticipated. I expected people to be excited — [they're] probably a little more than I thought, which is great," Turgeon said. "We need a sellout Friday. We need it to be jammed for me to do what I want to do — what I want to do down the road in Cole Field House."
Turgeon said in an ESPN podcast last month that he was exploring the possibility of playing the team's Dec. 21 game against Boston University at Cole Field House. Sources familiar with the situation say those plans were quickly scuttled. Turgeon said at the ACC's media day Wednesday that he believes issues such as ticket distribution for season-ticket holders and some renovations could be worked out down the road in order to hold regular season games at Cole.
"I know they need to put some stuff into it," Turgeon said. "Buildings have become so fan-friendly, I think Maryland fans would suck it up for a night for that. I don't know if the scoreboard's up to code. I know a few seats are not up to code, the bathrooms. I know there's a few things they're going to have to do. I think in the end it will still be [worth it]."
Nathan Pine, Maryland's deputy athletic director for external affairs, said the idea to move Friday's event to Cole Field House was hatched in the spring. After tickets were put on sale recently, more than 13,000 were quickly gobbled up by season-ticket holders and students who were barely in grade school when the last game was played there.
"At the end of the day, a lot of folks have talked about going back into Cole Field House, and [athletic director] Kevin Anderson was the one who said, 'Look into it, and let's explore the option to see what it would take to do it,'" Pine said. "He got the ball rolling. But it was certainly not an original idea. It was something that our folks [various departments on campus] and our fans have talked about for a long time."
Making it a reality has involved many administrators on campus. In essence, they have tried to figure out how to turn back the clock for one night. Pine said most of the work involves bringing in a temporary floor and courtside seating, a timing system for the scoreboards, as well as updating the sound and video systems.
"The biggest challenge is all of the temporary accoutrements to make this thing go and be fan-engaging," Pine said. "It's not going to look exactly like it does at Comcast. We're not going to have all of the amenities. But it's a very workable building, and I think our fans understand that, and they're going to be excited because it's our first time back in there for an event."
Pine declined to discuss how much it cost to prepare the building for Friday's event.
John Rymer, a 1960 Maryland graduate and longtime season-ticket holder both at Cole Field House and Comcast Center, is looking forward to going back to the old gym.
One of his favorite memories was from Driesell's first season, when the Terps upset Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse Duke.
"He didn't have much of a team, but when we beat Duke, you knew it was going to be fun," said Rymer, 76, who plans to sit courtside Friday. "We had so many great games when Lefty was there and when Gary was there."
Rymer was even a regular when the school still held the event beginning at 12:01 a.m. "We had some huge crowds for Midnight Madness," Rymer said.
As Quincy Bathersfield ran the steps at Cole Field House one afternoon last week — something he has been doing on a regular basis since 1997 — he recalled coming to sneak a peak at end of the men's practices when Williams was coaching and also playing pickup games with some of the players in the smaller, auxilary gym tucked into one of the corners of the arena.
Bathersfield, who started as a part-time student in 1994 and eventually graduated in 2010, said that while getting tickets to big games was difficult and costly, "I saw the team practice so much that I felt like I didn't have to go to the games."
Bathersfield doesn't have a ticket to Maryland Madness, but he looks forward to the possibility of the Terps playing a regular season game there in the future.
"I think it's a good building. I like the intimate feel to it," Bathersfield said. "If they put a few dollars into it, I think they could do it [play a regular season game in Cole]."
For some fans, it will mark the first time they have ever stepped foot into the building. After holding the celebration for his team's national championship the day after beating Indiana at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 2002, Williams said he didn't go back for a couple of years.
"I just wanted to get a feel of the place," Williams said. "The last time we were in there as a team, they had the celebration for the team the day after we won in Atlanta. But I don't think it really hit home that the next season we wouldn't be playing there. It took a while before I felt like I could really go back."
Williams said he was pleased to hear that the annual preseason affair was being moved to the building that has housed offices, classes and activities such as intramural soccer and crabfeasts since the basketball teams left.
The memories will return for Williams and others who spent significant moments of their lives inside Cole Field House.
"I think every person that was a basketball fan has personal memories," Williams said. "They remember certain games, but also events in their life, whether it was taking their father to a game the year before he died. A lot of people have personal feelings about Cole."
Driesell is excited about coming back, too, but he is disappointed in one regard.
"The only thing I wish is that they played it at midnight," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun