Gary Williams lowered into his iconic crouch as he eyed Jason Williams, who stood about 10 feet from the former Terrapins men’s basketball coach. It was Feb. 17, 2002, and the Duke guard was dribbling several strides beyond the three-point line, hoping to run the clock down so his No. 1 Blue Devils could take the last shot of the first half in their bout with the No. 3 Terps.
As the game clock ticked to eight seconds, the All-American turned his head for a play call from Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski on the other end of the floor. Before Williams turned his head back toward the basket, though, Terps guard Steve Blake darted in and poked the ball away.
Blake corralled the loose ball and sprinted down the court, capping the play with a right-handed layup while Williams chased from behind. That put the Terps up 38-29 and helped them to an 87-73 win in their final game against Duke in Cole Field House. Six weeks later, the Terps won their first national championship.
But some say the legend of that play extends beyond Blake’s awareness or even the positive results that followed. Media members who covered that game say the atmosphere — the deafening screams of fans, the tight quarters and the hot, sticky gym — amped up the intensity of an already heavily impactful moment.
And when the men’s and women’s basketball teams hit the floor for Maryland Madness tonight, the Terps will have their first chance in 11 years to recreate that environment. At 5:30 p.m., for the first time since the 2001-02 season, the historic Cole Field House will open its doors for a Terps basketball event.
“What a great home-court advantage Cole was, anybody that came into Maryland knew,” said Johnny Holliday, who’s been the Terps radio announcer for the past 35 years. “The fans were so great — 14,500 sounded like 25,000, it was hot, it was musty. I can’t even begin to list the amount of great games played there.”
Cole opened in 1955 and was integrated as a major part of this university during the 47 years it served as the Terps’ home. It sits next to Stamp Student Union, in the heart of the campus, and was famous for its slim wooden seats, lack of air conditioning and amplified sound.
There’s no telling how tonight’s Maryland Madness will unfold. But one thing’s for sure: The old arena that was once so special will again regain its intended purpose.
“I think you can just call it an awesome basketball gym,” said Josh Barr, who covered the Terps for The Washington Post in 2002. “You had 14,000 people on skinny wooden seats. There was no A.C. in the building, so everybody was just going to sweat. It was just terrific.”
‘ITS OWN PERSONALITY’
Cole hosted plenty of iconic moments both in the history of this university and the nation. It was the site of the 1966 national championship, in which the all-black starting five of Texas Western beat Kentucky and its all-white starting five. It’s where the U.S. played China in a 1972 pingpong match, one of the first modern diplomatic events between the two nations.
But above all, Cole was home to the Terps. The men’s and women’s teams combined to go 774-246 in the building. Seven top-ranked men’s teams were upset there, the most of any venue at the time the Terps moved into Comcast Center in 2002.
Patrick Stevens, who covered the Terps for The Diamondback during the 2001-02 season, remembers Cole by two distinct traits: “hot and loud.” Those characteristics, coupled with a rabid fan base, made Cole unique.
“It certainly did not have a lot of the bells and whistles that you see in more modern arenas,” Stevens said. “But it had a lot of history and a lot of its own personality in a lot of ways based on the fact that so much had happened there and the fact that the crowds were great.”
Terps All-Americans such as Albert King, Len Elmore, Len Bias, Joe Smith and Juan Dixon spent their entire careers at Cole.
The program had such consistent success, and the building was located so close to dorms and classrooms that it became one of this university’s most storied features. The connection between the students and Cole was evident as they streamed into their seats for home games, sure, but it was even put on display after the Terps pulled out a road win in 2001.
When the Terps beat Duke in Durham, N.C., that February, students in College Park ripped down the goalposts at Byrd Stadium. But they also broke into Cole, an old building in the heart of the campus without any security cameras. Its status as a prominent and historic arena was pushed aside; it became a place to celebrate.
“Somebody went into the gym and cut down the nets on all six hoops. Just for fun because Maryland won the game,” Barr said. “That’s hilarious. That’s stuff that can never be recreated at Comcast with all the cameras and security and the alarms. Cole just meant a lot to a lot of people and they had a lot of good times there.”
Holliday called games in Cole for a nationally prominent Terps team under former Terps coach Lefty Driesell in the late ’70s and early ’80s that featured King and Bias. He witnessed Walt Williams score 30 or more points in seven straight games as the team began its return to relevance under Gary Williams in the early ’90s.
And eventually, he watched Dixon and Blake in the early 2000s.
“It was one of the great arenas in America,” Holliday said. “So many tremendous games were played in there and so many coaching milestones with Lefty and with Gary.”
Despite all those stars and great moments, though, the Terps couldn’t win a national title during their first 46 years in Cole.
In the late ’70s, the Terps were a consistently competitive program and Cole’s legend as a basketball facility grew. Still, Driesell couldn’t deliver on his promise that the program would become the “UCLA of the East” and the team never made a Final Four under the left-hander.
After Driesell left in 1986, the program crumpled. Bob Wade led the team to three disappointing seasons and left as the Terps dealt with sanctions stemming from NCAA violations.
But Gary Williams took over in 1989 and reconstructed a national contender. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Terps program reached its peak. They were a perennial top-10 team playing in the best conference in the nation, had an intense rivalry with Duke and even reached their first Final Four in 2001.
Entering Cole’s final year, the Terps still hadn’t won a title, but they were one of college basketball’s most prominent teams. Cole was one of the prime hoops destinations in the country.
“They were so good, the ACC was so good at the time and the Maryland-Duke rivalry was at its highest pitch,” Barr said. “Cole was just a great place to watch a game.”
In the final year in their storied home, the Terps finally captured the elusive national title, the first in program history. In the process, they went 15-0 at Cole.
“You knew with that team that brought back four starters from a Final Four run, had Dixon, had [center Lonny] Baxter, that had knocked on the door, you knew they were going to be really good,” Stevens said. “It was the perfect year to have that sort of send-off for that building.”
When the Terps arrived from Atlanta after winning the championship, students filled Cole one last time to greet the team for an impromptu rally. Holliday called that celebration in the old building one of his greatest moments.
But it was also bittersweet.
“I kept thinking, ‘Man, I am going to miss this place,’” Holliday said.
If you walked into Cole Field House earlier this month you would have seen unused ticket windows on either side. You’d walk through a set of doors and see thousands of wooden seats and scoreboards at the corners of the arena under dated advertisements for Doritos and Aquafina.
You would have seen old logos and markings from the 2001-02 season, but there wouldn’t have been hardwood on the floor at the center of the building. Those wooden seats, which once filled with fans who watched one of the nation’s top college basketball teams, would have sat empty, encircling indoor soccer fields rather than a basketball court.
That changed this week as the university prepared for Maryland Madness. Tonight, those seats are sure to fill up, and the current Terps seem thrilled to take the court in the same building that Elmore, Bias and Dixon once did.
“It will be a great thing,” said guard Nick Faust, a Baltimore native. “Growing up, I always watched guys playing there. It’s going to be a great opportunity for us and something we’re looking forward to as a program.”
Terps forward Jonathan Graham, a transfer from Penn State, also grew up in Baltimore and his father, Ernest Graham, played for the Terps in Cole from 1978-81.
“I came here when I was kid, had birthday parties,” Graham said. “I would bring my two or three best friends up here with me and we would all just go to Maryland Madness and have a good time, so to actually be in it is something special.”
This might not be the last time the Terps get to play in Cole, either. Coach Mark Turgeon has been pushing hard to get the Terps to play a regular-season game in their former arena.
The third-year coach and administration seem to be using tonight’s event as a trial run. It’ll cost a lot of money and take plenty of work to transform Cole into a basketball arena that can host a game, but Turgeon is determined to give it a try.
“I think it’s a terrific idea, I think people would be excited about it and I’m sure Cole would still be a great place to watch a game,” Barr said. “I just think it would take a lot to make Cole ready for a game.”
But the Terps and their fans don’t need to think too far ahead just yet. They have reason to focus on tonight, when the historic arena will be reopened as a basketball facility for the first time since Dixon and Baxter’s senior night, a 112-92 win over Virginia.
A majority of the school’s undergraduate student body was in elementary school then. So there’s a generation of Terps fans who know Comcast Center as the program’s only home, one without the history of Cole where the march to a national championship began.
Tonight, the Terps and their fans will get a taste of that. They’ll get to experience Cole, the old building in the center of campus with so much history.
“It’s certainly not going to be what it was like in February of ’02 when Duke comes to town. It’s not going to be what it was like for some of those Bias vs. Jordan games in the ’80s,” Stevens said. “But it’s going to introduce another group of folks, another group of fans, to that era. And if you’re Maryland, that’s something that you want to feed on because it is such an important part of that program’s heritage.”