Viva Cole Field House! Soul: The William P. Cole Student Activities Building has something most arenas lack these days.

March 22, 1998|By JOHN SHIFFMAN

The University of Maryland has big plans. It wants to replace aging Cole Field House with a $100 million-plus basketball arena in five years.

In his current capital budget, the state's First Fan, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, proposes spending more than $4 million this year to begin planning a replacement for Cole. The total cost of the project is estimated at $106 million. University administrators are said to be shopping for a corporate sponsor willing to pay $25 million to get its name on the arena.

As a lifetime fan, here's hoping that it never happens.

For all its faults - and there are plenty - the William P. Cole Student Activities Building has something most arenas lack these days: a soul.

Built in the mid-1950s, Cole feels like a college gym should, a little musty, but with a strong sense of tradition. The arena sits on a hill in the middle of the main campus, squeezed between the tennis courts and the student union. Cole Field House is a huge part of the Maryland basketball experience. Replace it and you'll change Terp hoops forever.

A story in the Terps' game programs this season says Cole brings to mind "images of historical players shooting set shots, fans in bobby socks ... a visit to the set of Hoosiers. ... "

Cole's not quite that quaint. But it does look a bit like the late 1950s. About a dozen Army-green arches brace the ceiling, giving the feel of an old airplane hangar.

The arena's 14,500 wooden seats are tiny and the concourse level is so narrow it's a fire trap. Just before tip off and at half time, crowds jam the walkway, pressing fans against the championship trophy cases that line the walls.

The place has its oddities. In one men's room, rows of urinals face each other. There is an indoor swimming pool just 100 feet behind one student section. During games, fans in the arena can stand at a giant picture window and watch people swim in the pool. Sometimes, they can smell the chlorine.

There are little things. The popcorn is too salty, the sodas too watery. The angle in some seats, particularly those in Section N, makes it tough to see the action without standing. And unlike most venues, at Cole the score is kept on giant red boards along the side walls - not from a unit that hangs from the ceiling.

And it's hot. Sweltering hot. Because Cole was built without air conditioning, the place sweats when the outside temperature rises above 40 degrees in January or February. But fans who know better dress in layers or simply bring shorts and sprint to and from the parking lot.

Cole also has problems most fans never see. They say the roof leaks terribly and the locker rooms are too small.

But all of these problems would seem solvable. For example, why not move the (nonbasketball) coaches' offices elsewhere and use the room to widen the concourse area? That would alleviate a great deal of fan stress.

Of the nearly 600 games played at Cole since the 1950s, the Terps have won about three of every four. They have shocked several No. 1 teams there: South Carolina (1971), Notre Dame (1979), UCLA (1981), Virginia (1983) and North Carolina (1995 and 1998).

(I also carry a few personal memories from Cole. When I was 10 months old, I attended my first sporting event there, an upset over 1st-place Duke. In 1974, while attending coach "Lefty" Driesell's week-long summer camp at Cole, a counselor stopped practice to tell us the president was resigning.)

Cole also has a rich non-Terp legacy. In fact, it's the site of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's only loss as a high school player.

And the field house has played host to two national championships, including the watershed 1966 NCAA title game. In his book, "March Madness," John Feinstein calls it "the most important college basketball game ever played." Texas Western, which started five black players, defeated all-white Kentucky, 72-65.

This history matters because being a die-hard fan is all about tradition. It's about sitting next to the same season ticket holders for about 25 years or sneaking into the student section to dance and shout. The shared experience and tight quarters energize the fans.

The other nice thing about Cole Field House is that it lets a fan actually feel like he or she's on a college campus, not in some sterile suburban arena. This feeling helps the fan believe the game is actually an athletic contest between two schools, that it is not merely a corporate-sponsored minor league for the National Basketball Association.

One promising note in the debate over Cole's fate is a bill introduced this year by state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky of Prince George's County, a regular at Terps home games. His proposal would prohibit corporate donations to state schools in exchange for naming rights. He doesn't want an arena to be named after a corporation. Imagine if Cole became the Pizza Hut Arena or Cellular One or the Bud Bowl?

Pinsky told The Sun: "Allowing corporations to attach their names and logos to facilities at our colleges and universities degrades the integrity of these institutions. These facilities are for the students and citizens of Maryland. They are not marketing tools."

As the Cole faithful used to sing after a big win, "Amen."

John Shiffman is a law student at the American University in Washington

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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