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8 Upper

The End of History

By Tom Scocca | Posted 3/6/2002

The first time I stepped into Cole Field House, I was 12 or 13 years old. Back then, you could get there by cutting straight through Byrd Stadium--down the seating bowl, across the track, through the back of the end zone, and up the other side. There weren't any colonnades or brick superstructure to block the way yet; the football facilities hadn't been bulked up to big-time proportions.

But Cole was commanding--despite being sparsely filled, hosting an academic competition rather than a basketball game. I entered up at the top, in the dimness. The stands dropped steeply, dauntingly, toward the golden wood floor below. As in Memorial Stadium, every seat in the bowl seemed to be tipping inward, tilting irresistibly toward the center, where the action would be. At some point, my friends and I ended up down on the hardwood, walking among the lowered baskets, the actual hoops that Keith Gatlin, Adrian Branch, and Len Bias shot at. It felt like being inside the altar rail.

In the funeral observances for Cole this past weekend, most of the attention fell on everything that had happened there in the past. Commentators remembered the parade of historic figures that had come through College Park: Elvis Presley, Adolph Rupp, young Lew Alcindor, the Chinese national Ping-Pong team. Grainy footage showed Lefty Driesell striding onto the floor, his sports jackets still hideous even as fading film stock muted the plaids. It was a helluva place, that old field house.

History, though, can be overrated as an architectural virtue. The best old sports facilities are the ones that have survived on their merits, not on their past records. The cult of Fenway Park is touching and valuable, but it wouldn't be any good if the grandstands weren't so beautifully close to the action. I watched a few hockey games in the storied old Boston Garden in the early '90s, and the place was a dump. Fans in the corners couldn't see past the far blue line. It didn't much matter that, once upon a time, it would have been Bobby Orr who was skating out of their field of view.

What mattered at Cole Field House was not the weight of what had happened there before, but what was going on there at the moment, under the lights, on the floor. The Comcast Center will reportedly have a Walk of Fame, to celebrate Maryland sports memories. Cole had rafters, from which to hang retired numbers and championship banners, and that was about it. It was single-mindedly a showcase for basketball.

And so, nice as it was to see Len Elmore and Keith Booth and Bud Millikan all brought together, the most compelling item among all the names and facts and figures was one particular milestone--one which, properly speaking, isn't really about the history of Terrapins basketball at all. It is this: Last loss at Cole Field House--Florida State 74, Maryland 71, Feb. 14, 2001.

It doesn't count as history, because its significance is in the here and now--in all the games that Maryland hasn't lost since then. That Valentine's Day defeat, which capped a 1-5 skid and got the team booed off the court, was notably ugly, but it was otherwise a familiar piece of underachievement by the Terps. They were on their way to being also-rans, as they'd been for decade after decade.

But since that day, they've gone 18-0 at Cole Field House and 35-5 overall. They went to the NCAA Final Four for the first time, and have come back this year to win their first outright regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference championship since 1980. For the past 12 months, this team has been floating in the brilliant present.

Who has time for history now? Steve Blake has more assists than Keith Gatlin. Juan Dixon is closing in on Len Bias' school scoring record, and on Mike Mardesich's records for games and victories in a Maryland career. The greatest old Terps have always stood in untouchable glory: There will never be another Buck Williams, another John Lucas, another Elmore. Maybe so; but this team is eclipsing their deeds.

I can't think of a better way for Cole Field House to have closed. The Terps almost blew it a week before the finale, against a hard-nosed and near-desperate Wake Forest squad. The Demon Deacons roughed Maryland up, grabbed the loose balls, and seemed to have the game under control. But the Terps closed the gap in the final minutes, then traded baskets down the stretch--and then, with 1.3 seconds left and the score tied at 89, Wake Forest's Josh Howard grabbed a missed shot by Dixon and called a time-out his team didn't have. Dixon hit one of two technical-foul shots, and the perfect home record was intact.

Which set up the March 3 finale against Virginia. The Cavaliers, even more than Wake Forest, were dying for a win. They had fallen out of the top 25, and were at risk of missing the NCAA tournament. But they had just beaten Duke--handing Maryland the conference title. One more win could have saved their season. Maryland had the conference title in hand and a top seed in the NCAAs all but sewn up. All the Terps were playing for was the moment--the chance to finish unbeaten at home, and to give Cole a nice send-off.

But in the moment is when this team thrives. The Terps jittered through the first half but came out with a 43-36 lead. A sideline reporter asked Gary Williams if he was hoping the team would settle down--and the Maryland coach, showing perspective unimaginable a year ago, shrugged and pointed out that 43 points was pretty good. So it was. And, assured by that fact, the Terps returned to the floor and dropped in 69 more in the second half, for the roll-away 112-92 win. There would be speeches and announcements after the game, but by then Cole Field House was finished. It had nothing more to do.

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