A look inside the new renovated Cole Field House at the University of Maryland. (Michael Ares/Baltimore Sun video)
COLLEGE PARK — With the official opening of its new indoor football facility, Cole Field House went from iconic to eye-popping Wednesday.
A large crowd made up of university and state officials, Maryland coaches and hundreds of fans — their heads and hearts filled with decades-old memories of the former basketball arena — came away awestruck after seeing the beginnings of how the 61-year-old building will be turned into a state-of-the-art facility that combines football with medical research and business development.
Five years in the making, the proposed $155 million project will eventually include a weight room, new offices and two outdoor practice fields for the football team as well as the more than 40,000 square feet dedicated to the Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance, an orthopedic treatment center and the school's Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
After leading the crowd in a few impromptu "Maryland" cheers, university president Wallace C. Loh said, "Today we're here to celebrate a fearless innovation, the transformation of Cole Field House for the 21st century … that brings together not just athletics, but is integrated with neuroscience, research on the brain, brain recovery. It is about education, innovation and entrepreneurship."
Loh called the project "the capstone of the relationship between the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland in Baltimore," pointing to 60 joint faculty appointments and $80 million in research funding "that neither school could have generated on its own. The symbol of that project is the new Cole Field House."
The money for the project, over two-thirds of which has been raised according to Loh, has come from some 140 "major" donors — most notably Maryland graduate and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, who reportedly donated $25 million — as well as from the state, which has pledged another $40 million.
"You know it takes a village to build a new Cole Field House," Loh said. "This is the largest fundraising project in the history of this university "
Maryland State Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller said the project grew out of a conversation he had years ago with Plank.
"I said, 'What are you thinking about?' He said, 'Something like [Virginia], $20 million, $25 million,'" Miller recalled. "I think he thought he was going to pay for the whole thing himself. He had the initiative, he had the idea."
Plank could not attend Wednesday's opening because of a prior business commitment, Miller said.
Second-year football coach DJ Durkin, whose rebuilding program will be the immediate beneficiary of the project, looked around the cavernous expanse of the indoor practice facility as he addressed the crowd.
"What a special day, how about this place? Wow, it's unbelievable," he said.
"It boggles the mind," said Mike Anderson, who played both football and basketball for the Terps before graduating in 1991.
When he visited the campus in recent years, Cole Field House seemed more like an aging eyesore than the iconic arena that hosted historic events, such as the 1966 NCAA men's basketball championship game win by all-black Texas Western over all-white Kentucky and a pingpong match six years later between the United State and China that helped bring an end to the Cold War.
"To have it be so bare and have it here for the last so many years, it was depressing," said Anderson, whose Grassroots Youth Football League in Prince George's County started the careers of more than a dozen current Terps. "To walk in and see this, it's just unbelievable. Words can't really describe how exciting this is."
Barry Gossett, whose name is attached to the football team's current training facility and who along with State Senator Frank Kelly helped get the various academic and research entities involved in the renovation project, recalled the excitement when Cole Field House first opened in 1955.
There was a similar feeling with Wednesday's reopening, Gossett said.
"The best part is yet to come, that's what I'm really excited about," Gossett said. "It's more than a dream come true. When we win football games and we win basketball games, you know what happens to the school's recognition."
Durkin, who joked that he has worn a "permanent smile" on his face in the weeks leading up to the opening, said he could tell what it meant from the reaction of his players after they walked — or ran — into the building after it was completed last week.
"It was a special moment for our team," Durkin said Wednesday. "Our young guys it was great for, I think for our veteran guys it was special. … Right now this indoor practice field is the nicest anywhere you can [find] and when the whole building is completed with everything in it, it'll be as nice as anywhere in the country."
As he was about to enter Cole Field House on Wednesday, Durkin bumped into former Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams, who in his role as senior managing director for alumni relations and athletic development spearheaded the fundraising effort.
"My memories of Cole Field House are of Coach Williams, just sweating everywhere, yelling at players, officials, anyone near him," Durkin told the crowd. "To walk into this building with him was really special. I want to thank you Coach Williams for all your help."
Williams, who retired in 2011 after 22 years at his alma mater and was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2014, isn't surprised that Cole Field House was big enough to hold an indoor football practice facility.
"We used to mess around after practice kicking a football and I knew the ceiling was high enough," Williams said. "To see what they've done with this is tremendous. Cole Field House was as famous as any building on any college campus in this country. This kind of brings it back to that level again."