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'This is cutting edge:' Maryland set to debut Cole Field House football facility

Gary Williams developed a pattern to generate donations to renovate Maryland's Cole Field House.

The former men's basketball player turned Hall of Fame coach turned senior managing director for alumni relations and athletic development would sit down with fellow alumni and explain why the historic — and rarely used — basketball arena was the perfect option for an indoor football facility and center for sports medicine and entrepreneurship.

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Williams wanted Cole Field House to reclaim its worth as a central spot on campus, he'd tell them. Plus, Maryland's move to the Big Ten in 2014 necessitated a strong commitment to upgrading the football program.

Oftentimes, Williams realized, he didn't have to push his pitch any further. Almost everyone agreed. So, after years of talking about the building's transformation, he and the university are eager to debut the completed first phase of the $155 million project Wednesday.

"It was hard for me to see Cole just sit there and not be a part of the university like it was for so many years," Williams said. "When this came along, this indoor practice facility, after going to the Big Ten, I thought it was great because it gets Cole out there again. It puts it on a national level again like it was.

"It becomes a building on campus that people will rally around. It means that they look at the pride they have in Maryland, in Maryland football, whatever, and there it is. You don't just have to talk about it. It's there. It's done. It's pretty cool."

Construction began on the 61-year-old building in December 2015, and the university plans to break ground on the second part that includes the Center for Sports Medicine and Human Performance, an orthopedic clinic and the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship during the ceremony with an expected completion in 2019.

The athletic department has released photos of the football space — the first phase cost an estimated $45 million — and coach DJ Durkin plans to use it every day for walk-throughs.

The second-year coach established a love for the heat and arduous practice conditions last season, so he won't allow his players respite during fall camp in their new air-conditioned digs, but one facet of the facility Durkin most appreciates is flexibility for weather.

As the only Big Ten school without an indoor football facility, he said the team practiced in the snow for last year's bowl game in late December. Poor weather has also disrupted the Terps' weekly schedule under the NCAA's practice time limits.

Pretend Maryland has a four-hour practice during a game week, but storms start 10 minutes before the session, Durkin theorized during Big Ten Media Days last week as an example of the facility's benefit. The team could stay in meetings longer, Durkin said, or hold a walk-through in a gym.

"You don't have an answer," Durkin said. "Now we have an answer. It doesn't matter. 'OK, we're going inside.' You can't measure that."

Durkin has also used it to boost recruiting. This year's freshman class was the nation's 18th best, behind only Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in the Big Ten, and early verbal commitments for 2018 have the program poised for another talented haul.

But officials involved with the planning and execution said Cole Field House's impact will extend beyond football.

When Tom McMillen, a former men's basketball player and University System of Maryland's Board of Regents member, discussed approving the project in 2014, he reflected on his time playing in Cole.

Former coach Lefty Driesell complained about the lighting because it shined at angles meant for a boxing arena. The sport was popular during Cole's first few years of operation before the NCAA eliminated it after 1960.

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If football were to similarly disappear, McMillen asked the board, would the facility, donations and investments still be worth it?

As he went on a recent athletics tour at Colorado, where the university has a sports medicine operation connected to its indoor football field, McMillen reaffirmed his decision.

"This is cutting edge," McMillen said. "It's sort of brings Maryland into the major program ranks because it's more than just sports."

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