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UM’s Cole project: A blend of academics and athletics

Mention the planned $155 million renovation of Cole Field House at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the attention immediately turns to football.

People think of the new indoor practice facility, the new outdoor grass fields. And, perhaps most notably, they think of the elevated reputation the Terrapins will enjoy once the football training complex is built, and the team is no longer at a disadvantage in its new conference, the Big Ten.

But the renovation project is as much about academics as it is athletics, officials say.

Several officials familiar with the project said the football amenities may never have been approved had the renovation proposal not also included blueprints for new academic and research programs — namely, the planned Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance.

The renovated Cole building, formally called the William P. Cole Student Activities Building, will also serve as home for campus-wide innovation and entrepreneurship programs, some of which already exist in different pockets of the university.

Those two components sweetened the deal for University System of Maryland officials, helping persuade the Board of Regents, USM’s 17-member governing body, to approve the $155 million proposal.

“Much of the money comes from private sources, but it’s still a significant expenditure of funds by the university and the state,” said USM Chancellor William E. “Brit” Kirwan. “So the thing that convinced me it was a worthy project was the academic component.”

The Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance will be a collaboration between the schools of engineering, public health and agriculture at the University of Maryland, College Park and the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

The details are still being hammered out, but it’s exactly the kind of partnership envisioned by the architects of the “MPower the State” initiative, which was launched in 2012 to promote the sharing of resources and expertise between the institutions.

The new center will obviously have an athletic component, but it won’t be singularly focused on serving athletes, said Bradley Hatfield, chair of the kinesiology department at the School of Public Health and a leader in planning the center.

Members of the university community and residents of surrounding counties will be able to receive clinical services — for a sports injury or any other orthopedic issue — or participate in clinical trials there.

A rotating roster of orthopedists and other specialists from the University of Maryland Medical System will see patients in the facility throughout the week, said Dr. Andrew Pollak, chair of the orthopaedics department at UMB.

And, Hatfield said, the center will provide cross-disciplinary research opportunities for students and faculty from both institutions. Engineers, for instance, could team up with orthopedists to design better prosthetics or innovative robotic devices, perhaps for use during surgery.

“Athletes can help us become better scientists, and we can help them become better athletes,” said Jane Clark, dean of the School of Public Health. “This is the kind of thing that can really make a difference.”

Emphasis on entrepreneurship

Those involved with designing the Center for Sports Medicine, Health and Human Performance haven’t forgotten that the new Cole facility will also house the campus-wide entrepreneurship program, and they’re thinking about ways to collaborate.

UMCP President Wallace Loh created the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which carries out his goal of exposing every student to entrepreneurship in some way. That office will move into Cole after the renovation, and its activities will be expanded.

For instance, there are plans to create a new academic major in sports management, which would incorporate elements of sports medicine, such as the psychology of performance, as well as business.

“The Big Bang”

The concept of a collaborative sports medicine center was first dreamt up a few years ago, Pollak said. But although it represents many of USM officials’ core goals, the project was basically a pipe dream. They needed the space. The money.

“There’s probably over a billion dollars’ worth of academic capital project proposals in a given year, and we can only [spend] about $200 to $250 million,” Kirwan said. “So there’s a huge backlog.”

Then the Cole renovation plan emerged — “the big bang,” as Hatfield puts it.

The renovation offered a tantalizing opportunity: one of most prominent buildings on campus was going to be gutted, mostly on private donors’ dime. This was the chance to see the sports medicine center come to fruition, on a grander scale than what Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, Pollak and others first envisioned.

“So you could say it was because of athletics that an opportunity arose to rapidly accelerate a very worthy idea that we probably couldn’t have pulled off for 10 more years,” Kirwan said.

Hatfield said he doubts the center would have ever gotten off the ground without the willingness of private donors — Under Armour’s Kevin Plank is a big one — to invest in the Cole project. But he’s confident the center will eventually “take on a life of its own.”

“This center is going to be something that most people think could never happen, and that is an effective and functional relationship between academics and athletics at a major institution,” he said.

For now, faculty and administrators at UMB and UMCP are feverishly working to iron out the specifics of the sports medicine center and the entrepreneurship academy. The bulk of the planning is expected to be complete before summer.

Construction is expected to begin in December at the earliest. The first phase, which includes the sports medicine center, is estimated to wrap up by spring 2017. The entire project could be completed in 2018.

Life after football?

Tom McMillen, a regent who has been a congressman and a professional basketball player in the NBA, said his “yes” vote was also swayed by the sports medicine center and entrepreneurship programs.

Most people associate Cole Field House with basketball, but the facility, which was built in 1955, was also designed to host boxing matches, McMillen said.

“In the 30s, boxing was probably the leading sport in College Park,” McMillen said. “But then in 1960, a boxer died in the NCAA finals and they eliminated boxing [as an NCAA sport].”

What happens, McMillen said he asked himself and his fellow regents, if the same thing happens to football?

“If you told me football would be eliminated from Maryland in 20 years, would we still do this [renovation project]?” McMillen said. “And my answer was yes, because of the entrepreneurship program, the sports medicine facility and this huge repurposing of this legacy building in the center of campus.”

“Even without football,” he added, “it’ll still be iconic.”