News & Politics

Cole Field House Was So Much More Than a Sports Arena

The University of Maryland venue will get knocked down soon. Its history can't be demolished.

The 1961-62 men's basketball team. Photograph via the University of Maryland Digital Collections Flickr.

Even to comedian Hannibal Buress, it seemed a little strange that his show at the University of Maryland this past November was to be the last event to take place at the historic Cole Field House. In a video message prior to his performance, “They said this is gonna be the last thing that’s gonna happen in the Cole Field House. That’s crazy, man—a comedy show?” With renovations set to repurpose old Cole Field House into a $155 million facility with indoor/outdoor practice fields, a center for sports medicine, and an academy for entrepreneurship beginning in late December, the arena that’s been part of the DC-area sports landscape for decades will soon be all but gone, with only its historic south facade remaining. Maryland hasn’t played basketball at the airplane hanger look-alike since since 2002, but the arena dominates Maryland hoops history–and played an unexpected part in US-China relations.

The building opened on December 2, 1955, with a game between the Maryland Terrapins and rival University of Virginia Cavaliers, a 67-55 Terps victory. At first, the arena was known by the catchy name “Student Activities Building,” but a year a later it got the marginally better name William P. Cole Student Activities Center–after alum, Regents Board President, US Representative, and Customs Court Judge William Cole. From nearly the beginning, everyone just called it Cole Field House. The arena cost $3.3 million (about $29 million today) to build and originally sat 12,000, complete with arm and back rests. At the time of its construction, according to one source, Cole Field House was the second largest sports arena on the East Coast, behind only Madison Square Garden.

While Maryland basketball was good during that first decade-and-a-half at Cole–coached by Bud Millikan for most of it, the team placed in the Associated Press’ Top 15 team four times–it didn’t reach its zenith until Lefty Driesell came onto the scene in 1969. With brashness that became his trademark, Driesell declared that he wanted to make Maryland the “UCLA of the East.” While it didn’t quite reach the level of the storied West Coast basketball program, Maryland basketball at Cole Field House during Driesell’s 17-season tenure as head coach was certainly exciting and brought the program national prominence. With nearly 350 wins (more games than any other coach in Maryland history) and four finishes in the AP’s Top 10, Driesell left his undeniable mark on the school. Cole Field House also left an undeniable mark on Lefty. After all, he spent a lot of time there.

“What I loved about Cole was that we played and practiced there everyday… and my office was right there. I could step out of my door and walk ten steps and I’m sitting in a seat watching practice. Everyday, when I came to work and left, I saw Cole Field House. It was a part of me,” Driesell tells Washingtonian. In fact, when Cole was officially retired from basketball use in 2002, Driesell kept a piece it for himself–a four-by-four chunk of the court’s hardwood floor. “It’s too heavy to lift,” says Driesell. When asked if there was anything he didn’t like about his home arena, Driesell takes a long pause and says, “I didn’t like when we lost at Cole… but we didn’t lose too many.”

Not all of the basketball history at Cole was about the Terps, though. In 1965, Cole Field House played host to one of the most memorable high school basketball games ever when local powerhouse DeMatha High School took on the Lew Alcindor-led Power Memorial Academy, from New York. While DeMatha, coached by the legendary Morgan Wootten, was widely considered one of the best teams in the country, that wasn’t what everyone was talking about. Alcindor–who would go to be Hall of Famer and Time correspondent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar–was a seven-foot-one phenomenon, dominating every time he touched the ball. He had helped Power Memorial put together 71-game win streak, including a win against DeMatha the year before. On a snowy January night in front of a sold-out crowd and national media at Cole, DeMatha held Alcindor to “only” 16 points and won the game by three. It snapped Power Memorial’s unbelievable winning streak and was Alcindor’s only defeat as a high school varsity player.

The next year, even more basketball history was made at Cole Field House. With the Civil Rights Movement as a backdrop, the NCAA Final Four pitted the famed Kentucky Wildcats against the unknown Texas Western Miners. Besides the perceived talent disparity between the two teams, what truly separated the teams was race. Coached by Adolph Rupp, the Kentucky team did not have any African-American players–and wouldn’t until 1970. Texas Western started five African-Americans, the first team to ever do so. In one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history, Texas Western defeated Kentucky 72-65. The game would have such far-reaching ramifications that one of the Kentucky players, Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley, called it the “Emancipation Proclamation of 1966. In 2006, the Texas Western story was turned into a Hollywood movie called Glory Road, with the semifinal game happening at Cole.

The arena also played a significant role in foreign diplomacy. In 1971, 7,000 miles away from the Maryland campus, 15 Americans were invited to China by the government to play Ping-Pong. It was the first time in more than two decades that Americans were legally let into China. As Time wrote, “it was the ping heard around the world.” A year later, President Nixon visited China and volleyed back to the Chinese by asking them to come to the United States for some pong. On April 17th, 1972, in front of the largest crowd ever in US history to witness a Ping-Pong match, the Chinese national team took on the University of Maryland’s team at Cole Field House. Despite the politically charged nature of the event, the matches went off without a hitch. The media came to call it “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” and it helped normalize the relationship between two of the world’s superpowers.

Later this month, the wrecking ball will finally lay waste to the old Cole Field House, where Elvis once performed possibly the worst concert of his career and the first nationally televised women’s basketball game was held. While undoubtedly the new building will be sleek, modern and multifunctional, it will take many years for it to even approach the history of the William P. Cole Student Activities Center. As Coach Driesell puts it, “I love Cole Field House… there is no other place like it in the country.”