Woody Durham: The Man Behind The Voice
Woody Durham is the Rembrandt of college play-by-play. No paint-by-numbers here. The only numbers are the players numbers, whether on the football field or men’s basketball court. A canvas on which he paints with words. So well that many turn on their TV set, press MUTE, then turn up the sound on their radio to “see” the game through Woody’s eyes. Asked about this, he smiles and says, clearly so, “I’m flattered.”
Woody’s jovial, baritone leaks out of Carroll Hall room 283 Wednesday, Oct. 7. The “Voice of the Tar Heels” arrives early and chats with Professor Lauder before our class interview.
A silver and black chair at the front of the class is filled with his tall frame. He’s at home and relaxed — hands clasped together resting on the desk, feet crossed at the ankles and his right foot tapping rhythmically, slightly moving his loafer tassel.
Tastefully decked out in Carolina gear: gold Tar Heel lapel pin, black wristwatch with interlocking North Carolina logo, Carolina blue, rubber bracelet on his right arm and a weighty, gold Meineke Car Care Bowl ring that probably sets off lots of metal detectors.
Chatting with Woody is like swapping stories with an old friend — one that happens to be a walking encyclopedia for college football and basketball. Recalling names and dates faster than many half his age. His gracious, Southern dialect invites us to travel his path as he sees it.
Questions are slow to erupt, and a veil of silence falls over the room. Experienced in filling dead air, Woody chuckles and comments, “Well, so far, so good,” and the class briefly joins in laughter.
Asked about his meaningful awards, Woody looks into the distance, pensively rests his chin on his right hand, steps through his past and recalls receiving the North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year 12 times. And adds with a laugh, “If you go back, and trace most of the awards, you’d find out that they came in years when we had either a good football or good basketball season.”
His posture stiffens as he leans closer, with a humble smile on his face and says, “The ones that mean the most come from the University.”
Two of the biggies for him are the “Carolina Priceless Gem” for doing his 1,000th broadcast of Carolina games and the William R. Davie Award, the highest honor given to recognize extraordinary University service. Woody’s gracious spirit peeks through as he says, “I’m very flattered … to see who has won it before, and to see who has won it since.”
Now, in his 39th year as the play-by-play announcer, he’s up to 1,700 Carolina football and men’s basketball games. That’s equivalent to 5,100 hours on-air, plus all of the pre-game research.
“He doesn’t just show up at the game,” says Phil Ford, former North Carolina basketball player and assistant head coach. “By the time he gets to the arena, he’s put hours upon hours of research into the game.”
The irony is … this almost didn’t happen. No championship ring. No “Carolina Priceless Gem” Award. No William R. Davie Award. No working side-by-side with Dean Smith, Mack Brown, Butch Davis or Roy Williams.
Woody’s goal was to be the TV “Voice of the ACC” for football and men’s basketball, and “never had doing the games on his radar, whatsoever.” The defining moment: a phone call from UNC Athletic Director Homer Rice inviting Woody to lunch. “I was not interested in this initially, but did the courtesy thing and went,” said Woody. Talk of the day was the possibility of Woody doing radio play-by-play for Carolina. He comments, “Still, after lunch, it wasn’t even on my mind. It really got on my mind driving back to Greensboro that afternoon.”
Coming back to Chapel Hill was as comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes to the Mebane-born, Orange County native. It just fit. Woody commuted from Greensboro for several years until relocating to Cary briefly and finally, in 1984 to Chapel Hill where he lives today with Jean, his wife of 46 years.
“You may think you like this place,” referring to Chapel Hill, “you may even think you LOVE this place,” he scoots back and lowers his pitch for sincerity, “but tell me how you feel about it in five years after you leave. It has the most magnetic appeal of any place I have ever been in my life.
“Everybody who’s ever gone to school here … wants to be back in Chapel Hill, at some time before their life is over.” Woody graduated in 1963 with an AB degree in radio, television and motion picture.
Eight years ago, Woody created a home office — a virtual memory lane. Friends say: It’s his ‘ego room.’ It puzzles the insurance agent who says, ‘Look at this picture … look at this ball … how do you value something like that?’ Never a thought of showing off, just simply a reminder of what has been.
Outside his office, a sitting room showcases two large National Geographic maps — gifts from his sons. One world map and one U.S. map adorn the wall, peppered with pins for every location visited with the North Carolina men’s basketball team.
Woody’s peacock feathers are almost visible when sharing stories about sons Taylor and Wes. Taylor is the network affiliations manger for International Sports Properties in Winston-Salem. Sitting forward, similar to Mufasa holding Simba for all to see, he asks, “Who hired Wes Durham to come to Georgia Tech as a play-by-play announcer? Homer Rice — who hired me in the spring of 1971 to do Carolina play-by-play.” Both Durham men were hired by the same man, Homer Rice, to do the same job for two different universities … decades apart. Talk about fate?
As for retirement … friends say, “When it’s time, you’ll know.” He clasps his hands, leans forward and says, “I don’t really feel like it’s time, but I don’t want to stay so long that I lose my passion.” Woody wants to go out on top, and “The next day … be on the first tee playing 36” — that’s two rounds of golf for the unfamiliar. And who knows, maybe his words will paint a picture of what it’s like to chase a little white ball around the links.