`Midnight Madness' still seems a bit out there

Fond memories created at old Cole Field House of Terps' rise to the top

October 11, 2002

When tonight's "Midnight Madness" opens pre-season practice for the University of Maryland Terrapins, it will be the first public appearance at their new home, Comcast Center.

The Terps played 47 seasons at Cole Field House, the last one bringing them the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men's basketball championship. To mark the end of a colorful, sometimes glorious era, The Sun's Paul McMullen has written Maryland Basketball: Tales from Cole Field House, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Here is an excerpt:

The genesis of "Midnight Madness," the custom of starting practice just after midnight on the Saturday closest to Oct. 15, can be traced to Coach Lefty Driesell and the University of Maryland.

A track circled the field at Byrd Stadium in 1971, and Driesell had his players report there for a timed distance run, which commenced at 12:03 a.m. on the day the NCAA allowed formal practices to begin. Driesell had adopted the custom of scheduling dawn workouts, and he said that he had pushed it up to midnight to get a jump on the competition. Sports information director Jack Zane invited the media to that run, however, and the players understood that it wasn't going to make them a better team.

"It was a publicity stunt," said Billy Hahn, a freshman that season. "Lefty was unbelievable at getting attention."

Three decades later, Driesell's schtick still seems over the top. There was the boast that Maryland would be "the UCLA of the East." Moses Malone never sat in a Maryland classroom or wore a Terp uniform, but media guides in the late 1970s included him among Driesell's players in the NBA. Driesell's entrance on court was accompanied by "Hail to the Chief," a tune supposedly reserved for the arrival of the President of the United States.

The closest fans could get to the floor for regular-season games at Cole Field House in the 1950s and '60s was in the 12,230 permanent seats, no closer than 30 feet to the sidelines. One afternoon in Driesell's first season, 1969-70, a work crew set up risers and folding chairs on the floor. Like the Boy Scouts, the men behind the Maryland basketball program were being prepared, because attendance that year averaged below 10,000.

Attendance would soon rise.

With Jim O'Brien and Howard White on the freshman team, Maryland's varsity went 13-13 in 1969--70. The high-water mark came in a two-point win over Duke, which led the pep band to put its brass to the spiritual "Amen."

The Terps' promotion and promise came together during Driesell's second season, when Maryland was still a curio item, full of flair and braggadocio, but in need of some on-court success to be taken seriously as a basketball school. More failure had come on Dec. 16, 1970, when the Terps took a 4-0 team to South Carolina and literally got beat up.

When Maryland departed for Columbia, Tom McMillen was tearing it up on the freshman team and fellow rookie Len Elmore was nursing a knee injury. Of more immediate concern to Driesell, O'Brien couldn't make the trip south, as he was hospitalized with internal bleeding. Without the sophomore who would lead the Terps scoring in 1970--71, they took a big tumble against the nation's No. 2 team. White had 38 points and was endangering the gym scoring record - Maryland contended that South Carolina would not allow a black player that distinction - when John Ribock and Terp junior Charlie Blank tangled, going for a rebound. Other scuffles quickly escalated into a brawl. Driesell said he was punched by Ribock, as officials suspended the game with South Carolina cruising, 96-70.

Arguments over who had struck whom spiraled as Zane fought past security and into the Terp locker room, where he says he found Driesell in full bunker mentality.

"You gonna talk to the media?" Zane said.

"No," Lefty snapped.

"That will make South Carolina happy," Zane said.

"What do you mean?" Lefty huffed.

"They closed your locker room. South Carolina says you can't talk to the media," Zane answered.

"They're not telling me who I can't talk to," said Driesell, who reversed his own policy and opened his locker room to the media. He was still ready to fight Ribock.

"I'm going to get me a lawyer and sue that SOB," Driesell told the Evening Sun's Bill Tanton.

Driesell ripped South Carolina coach Frank McGuire. McGuire alluded to the impetuosity of youth. Driesell predicted "trouble at College Park" for the rematch. A day later, the president of the University of South Carolina said he "deeply regretted" the fight in a telegram he sent to Maryland President Wilson H. Elkins, but McGuire remained unrepentant. He told reporters that Driesell "hit himself in the mouth," called for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into the matter, and asked that South Carolina's game at Cole be canceled.

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