A barn of a building fights its age at UM Arena: While many say a replacement for Cole Field House is needed, few want to let go.

February 23, 1997|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Keith Booth reached for the oversized plaque yesterday and raised it above his head. The sellout crowd of 14,500 erupted. It was the last home game for the University of Maryland's Terrapins, and a moment for basketball fans and players to savor, one of many that have occurred in this 42-year-old field house.

But this barn of a building is fighting its age, and many say it must be replaced.

Engineers and accountants have already determined that it would cost at least $15 million more to renovate Cole Field House than to build another facility. A bigger arena is needed to bring in more fans and money, and to help attract the best players, university officials say. The project has support from Maryland's governor and other key politicians.

Though much is still to be decided, William E. Kirwan, president of the College Park campus, and athletic director Debbie Yow said yesterday that they want a new arena that will preserve the tradition and intimacy of Cole Field House. They plan to do that by putting it on campus, limiting the capacity to no 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 and spiritually, it is at the heart of Maryland's campus.

Students have struggled with final exams in its narrow birch seats. Proud parents have watched their children graduate. Elvis Presley, in his white sequined suit, drove the women crazy in an early '70s performance. One of the most memorable NCAA basketball championships was decided on the court. During the Nixon presidency, the Chinese pingpong team came to Cole to show off its finesse. 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, allowing students to cut through it on their way to classes, staff members to eat lunch there and others to watch basketball practices. Homeless people have been known to use the bowels of Cole as a refuge.

And though it's officially considered locked at night, there always seems to be a door ajar, a key passed from year to year, like the one that travels from one wrestling captain to the next. Inside you'll find midnight joggers running laps around its narrow concourses. Or a basketball player working on his foul shots. Former Terps center Len Elmore used to get the night watchman to turn on the lights for him.

"There was kind of a peace that came over you," said Elmore, who played at Maryland from 1971 to 1974. "All you could hear was the sound of the ball bouncing. 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 the three 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 the other end, the Maryland dancers, with their spangled halter tops, lined up.

Later, as game time approached, Maryland's players gathered in the dim tunnel at Cole Field House, clapping, slow and strong. "Whooooo-eeee! Crunch time!" they shouted to each other.

A shooter's court

Former players said that they loved the crowd being so close, that they could draw energy from them. Former U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, who also played at Maryland from 1971 to 1974, called Cole a shooter's court. The background is clearer and more defined than in a larger arena.

And it always seems that more people get in than are supposed to, adding to the heat that almost everyone complains about.

From the front-row seats to the highest ones, everyone has a clear view of the court. Some season-ticket holders in the back row said they turned down a chance to get seats closer to the action.

"Even if we have the worst seats, we can still see good," said Joan Sweeney of Baltimore. In their row, they have room to stand up and lean against the wall, and easy access in and out, which many in the crowd don't have.

That's not the only problem at Cole. It violates all kinds of codes and regulations, from its asbestos to its limited access for the handicapped, to the 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 five times. About five years ago, the eight electronic scoreboards shorted out for an hour before a game.

The steam-heat pipes leak. There are only four bathrooms off the concourse, and just four concession stands. There is no air conditioning, and ushers 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's and women's locker rooms and put fresh red paint on all the seats.

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