Cole history packed with fun, games

Arena: From circus shots to circus animals, Cole Field House has seen a lot in its 47-year history, including 485 Terps victories heading into its last full-court press tonight.

Cole Field House / The Final Game

March 03, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- It was the launching pad for Len Bias and Steve Francis, the floor where John Lucas and Juan Dixon pulled up off the dribble, and where Lefty Driesell and Gary Williams stomped their feet and ruined perfectly good sport coats.

It's where legends like Adolph Rupp, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan lost.

Not bad for a joint that opened as a white elephant.

The University of Maryland will sound the buzzer on Cole Field House tonight, capping 47 seasons of men's basketball with one final Atlantic Coast Conference game.

It's fitting that the last opponent in the symmetrical hangar will be the same as the first. Maryland was trying to bury its cow college image when the Terps beat Virginia, 67-55, on Dec. 2, 1955. Then the second-largest arena in the East, after an earlier version of Madison Square Garden, Cole compiled a legacy as distinctive as that of any college court.

The last NCAA men's basketball championship decided on a campus came at Cole. It's the only on-campus arena to be the host of two NCAA finals, and the first carried great sociological weight. It never housed a No. 1 men's team, but top-ranked squads fell there a record seven times, and hype over the closing coincides with what might be Maryland's best team ever. Dixon and company can complete a fourth perfect season at Cole, where the Terps are 485-151.

Fans got an assist in plenty of those wins. There was the night in 1971 when a tentative South Carolina team was undone; the environment helped unranked Terps teams knock off No. 1 three times. Better Maryland squads benefited as well. Just two weeks ago, Duke's Jason Williams was bedeviled by the decibel level and Steve Blake. Scalpers got $1,000 for that showdown. With dozens of former Terps greats making a sentimental last call, tonight's ticket might fetch more.

3.2 million dollars, questions

Next autumn Williams will move his budding dynasty a couple of hundred yards north into the Comcast Center, which will cost more than $107 million. Cole's predecessor was built during the Great Depression, when the bill for Ritchie Coliseum was $176,000. The Student Activities Building -- it wasn't named for Board of Regents Chairman William P. Cole until 1956 -- cost $3.2 million, and critics questioned every penny.

Construction began as Maryland enjoyed a national championship football team, but after Cole opened qualms over shaky student-athletes led to an athletic de-emphasis. It was one of the last accomplishments of the late Harold C. "Curley" Byrd, the campus builder who coached football before he presided over the college from 1935 to '54. He wanted a basketball arena to complement the football stadium that bears his name.

"We were in the basketball big time with Cole Field House, but he did it at the expense of other things," said George H. Calcott, a campus historian. "Curley built Cole Field House instead of a library. The year it was built, the university was threatened with the loss of its accreditation. Nobody except Curley knows exactly how the college paid for it."

Running out of the tunnel and into an adoring arena is priceless. Dixon will be the last captain to lead the Terps onto the floor. Coach Bud Millikan gave that honor in 1955 to another Baltimorean, John Sandbower.

He had played at cramped Ritchie, on a floor so close to the stands that players were "three feet from falling into a coed's lap, if you were lucky." But the setting for Sandbower's senior year was far grander.

"We were pretty excited with the idea of playing in a palace, but there was very little hoopla or buildup to the opening," said Sandbower, now a local attorney. "The place looked as big as Texas when I came running out of that tunnel. It looked like the whole university was there."

Actually, only 9,000 attended opening night. From Jerry West on, many top recruits stopped by to gawk at Cole, but few stayed and played. Through the 1960s it was a quiet place -- until March.

The NCAA tournament stopped at Cole eight times from 1962 to '70. CBS analyst Billy Packer started for Wake Forest when it beat St. Joseph's in Cole's first NCAA tournament game. Towson native Billy Jones broke the ACC color barrier in 1965-66 when he suited up for the Terps. That same season, all-white Kentucky, coached by Rupp, lost the NCAA final at Cole to Texas Western, which used seven players, all African-Americans.

The finals of the state high school boys tournament have been a fixture at Cole since 1956, but its biggest prep games involved DeMatha.

Morgan Wootten's Stags played Power Memorial and Lew Alcindor -- who later changed his name to Abdul-Jabbar --in 1964 and '65 at Cole. The latter game sold out three weeks in advance, and produced Abdul-Jabbar's only high school loss. Bragging rights in Washington are now settled at MCI Center, but the best city title game ever came at Cole in 1991, when DeMatha and Duane Simpkins roared back and beat D.C.'s Dunbar and Johnny Rhodes.

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