EDITOR’S NOTE: This profile was originally published in a 2010 issue of Our State. Details within the story were updated on March 7, 2018. Woody Durham passed away on March 7, 2018, at the age of 76.
The man with the familiar voice slurps a steaming spoonful of French onion soup in a half-busy café and pulls out a handful of pills. He apologizes for taking his medicine in front of you. But he missed breakfast today, he explains, and his daily prescriptions require food.
He plucks one pill from the pile. It’s for his heart. Another is a blood thinner. The next is for fluid in his ears. He has so many, you ask whether he’s going to have any soup with that. He laughs, but assures you they’re just for precaution — he’s in great health, thank you.
For most of the past 24 hours, you’ve studied Woody Durham, the man with the familiar voice, using your eyes along with your ears, looking for a unique perspective on this classic piece of North Carolina culture.
To his listeners, he was the “Voice of the Tar Heels,” the radio play-by-play man for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 40 years. To his listeners, he was the first to relay messages from New Orleans (twice), St. Louis, and Detroit that the Tar Heels were indeed national champions. To his listeners, he’s been a faceless passenger in a car, the audio to a muted television, or the man inside the earplugs. To his listeners, he’s what powder blue sounds like.
To you, he’s the man with the medicine.
He continues, slurping soup and naming each pill and what it does. In between, he fills the conversation with stories of UNC basketball and football, from golf outings with Dean Smith to car rides with Roy Williams, contents of a career that spans nearly half of the 100-year history of Carolina basketball. These are the stories that define him for the outside world. These are the stories that compel a grown man to approach him while he’s eating soup in a half-busy café and say, “I am so sorry to bother you. But my son is the biggest Carolina fan. Can you sign this?”
Because everybody else craves the stories, he assumes you’re here for them, too. He’s dished out enough in the past day or so to fill a notebook. Sure, they’re fascinating. (After all, nobody’s ever offered you free golf in Pebble Beach because your playing partner just happened to be Dean Smith.) But you’re not here for that. You’re here because you want to know more about him than what he knows about other people.
You want to know what the pills are for.
“This is Allegra,” he says, yawning. “For my allergies. I’ve lived all over North Carolina. I’ve been all over this state. And I never had allergies until I moved to Chapel Hill. The mold content is higher here. I never had a problem anywhere else.”
And there you have it. Woody Durham — the name synonymous with this town, the man people all over the state use for first-hand accounts of what’s happening near Franklin Street, the professional radio man whose career is defined by his association with UNC, the nationally known “Voice of the Tar Heels” — is allergic to Chapel Hill.
• • •
Prepared for anything
At 6:35 p.m. on game night, Woody swings open the stairwell door and steps into a cement hallway in the belly of the Dean E. Smith Center toting a work bag. He wears a white, pressed shirt, a gray tie, his wedding ring, the men’s basketball national championship ring from 2009, and a look of disappointment on his face for being late. He should have been here at 6:30. Traffic was bad, he explains.
Woody likes to say he can “play a round of golf with somebody and tell you what kind of person he is.”
You don’t need that long. In his pressed shirt and work bag, you see his preparedness. In his tie, you see he’s a professional and takes his work seriously. In his wedding ring, you see his devotion to his wife of 46 years, Jean, and the family they created. In his championship ring, you see he’s been a piece of North Carolina’s storied athletic history. And in his face, you see how he doesn’t like to fall short of anybody’s expectations.
That’s Woody Durham, the man behind the man with the familiar voice.
After the apologies for being late, he walks into the arena and straight to his seat along press row. He pulls out a pouch of supplies — Scotch tape, markers, highlighters, glasses, a calculator, and a notepad. Then he brings out his scorecard. He spent all day preparing it in his home office. It’s a large card, at least the size of two manila envelopes, and it contains a cluster of names and statistics drawn in calligraphy pen, markers, and highlighters.
“Probably, I’ll only use a third of what’s on here,” he says. “But the big question is, which third?”
Several years ago, Woody and Jean had a dinner function on a Friday night in the fall. Woody typically uses Friday nights in the fall to prepare his scorecard for the Saturday football game. But for this function, he put everything down, went to the dinner, and tried to finish the card when he got home. Around 2 a.m., he went to bed, feeling incomplete. And he lay there. Thinking about not having finished. Then got back up and put the last touches on the card. The next day, one of the scribbles of information he added in the wee hours became useful. Since then, Woody has finished his scorecards. No exceptions.
After he tapes his notes into place, he leaves the floor to meet with North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams to record the pregame interview in a private room. It’s 7:30 p.m. His colleagues with the Tar Heels Sports Network, former UNC player Eric Montross and Jones Angell, have just arrived. They shake hands and smile, seeming far more relaxed than the veteran leader of the group.
“Most of what I talk about happens on the court,” Montross says. “Woody has to know what they had for breakfast.”
About 15 minutes later, Woody returns. He gives Montross and Angell some talking points. They feed him some of theirs. And just before the start of the pregame broadcast, Woody leans over to Angell and says something that makes both of them laugh: “I’m ready for a vacation.”
Then, at 8 p.m., Woody pulls on a headset and begins talking to people all over the state, all over the country, without hearing anything back. And he thinks of one.
“Pick out a person you know; you can pick an imaginary person,” he often reminds himself. “But make the presentation to one person. You’re communicating with [thousands] of people, but you’re really talking to that one person.”
• • •
Picking up the signal
In Albemarle, Toby Webb listens.
Webb is 89 years old, holds three degrees from UNC, and is the former Albemarle City Schools superintendent. In his earlier days, though, he coached the Albemarle High School football program, which didn’t lose a single regular-season game for six straight years. During that run, in 1957, Webb had a small-size senior guard named Woody.
“He was just a substitute,” Webb says now. “But he was a competitive, fiery kid. Just the kind of kid you want to have around.”
Albemarle, about 40 miles east of Charlotte, had about 12,000 residents in 1957. Most of them, including Woody’s parents, worked in textiles. There were 600 kids at Albemarle High School. During Webb’s time as coach, the school produced a number of successful graduates — Ed Crutchfield later served as the chief executive of First Union Bank for 16 years, Wade Smith became one of the most prominent defense attorneys in North Carolina, and Bill Grigg became chief executive of Duke Energy.
Then there was Bob Harris, the team manager. Harris became, of all things, the “Voice of the Blue Devils,” the radio play-by-play man for Duke University basketball.
Before they all blossomed, they sat together for Albemarle’s traditional roast beef pregame meals.
“Friday nights were what I can remember as the best time of my life,” Woody says.
Woody was always a Tar Heel. Born in Mebane, he recalls sitting between his parents in the stands at UNC football games after his dad returned from World War II.
And, when they couldn’t make it, “we’d sit in the house and turn the antenna toward Chapel Hill as best we could.”
Webb’s antenna always finds Woody’s broadcast.
“I just enjoy hearing what he’s saying,” Webb says. “I think so much of him, because he’s such a great fella. He’s still just as humble and contrite as he can be when he comes home to all of us.”
• • •
OK, here we go. Michigan State is dressed in green. White trim. White numbers …
His voice is steady, his words always measured. He might charge up excitement sometimes, but mostly, he stays even.
This is his 1,279th basketball game, and he’s learned from each one that preceded it. In 1982, after Michael Jordan hit his famous jumper to give the Tar Heels a late lead over Georgetown, Durham nearly spoke too soon when he relayed the message that Fred Brown had errantly passed the ball to UNC’s James Worthy.
Fred Brown, looking … Throw away to Worthy! Worthy, five (seconds left)! The Tar Heels (short breath) are going to win (short breath) the national championship!
But then Woody saw Dean Smith holding his right palm out, telling people to stay calm. It wasn’t over. Worthy had been fouled with two seconds left, meaning Georgetown would have another shot. Woody’s stomach sank. Had he blown it? Fortunately for his career, Georgetown missed a desperation shot at the buzzer. Deep breath.
If people wonder whether Woody is a homer, absolutely he is. His career has banked on it. The more successful the Tar Heels, the more iconic his name and voice.
“I’m very much defined by what I do,” he says. “But I can do the best broadcast I’ve ever done in my life and if Carolina loses, nobody says, ‘Well, Woody was good last night.’ ”
Still, he maintains dignity. On this night, while Michigan State’s animated broadcasters stand and pace in place, waving their arms when things don’t go the Spartans’ way, Woody remains seated, always measured, steady.
As freshman Dexter Strickland hits a long shot just before halftime, the Smith Center crowd explodes. Woody calls the shot, says it’s good, and then, the man with the familiar voice goes silent and holds the mic out to let the cheering do the talking for him.
• • •
In the stands, Jean Durham listens.
Jean met Woody when she was in high school in Winston-Salem through a regional debate program. The two married a month after he graduated from UNC. She immediately noticed Woody’s desire.
“Woody’s always had this burning about everything,” Jean says. “He has a smoldering fire about everything he does. Reading a book, golf, eating dinner, drinking a glass of wine. Everything.”
Woody and Jean set that flame in their two boys, Wes and Taylor. Wes is the radio play-by-play man for Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons. Taylor, the younger son, does color commentary and play-by-play for Elon University’s football and basketball teams. They learned by watching their father.
Woody’s career started at a Florence, South Carolina, television station. Jean and Woody moved to Greensboro when Woody took a job at a local television station, and both boys were born there. They later moved to Cary, buying a home in the same neighborhood as legendary North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano. Then, when Taylor was in high school, they moved to Chapel Hill.
It wasn’t easy, Jean says, with Woody always on the road with the teams. But it always worked.
“He is the perfect example of the father that shows it’s not the amount of time you give your family, it’s the quality of that time,” Jean says. “I can still see him coming in from a trip at 2 or 3 in the morning and getting up and playing with the boys at 7 in the morning.”
Wes has two children, twin 10-year-olds who are spoiled appropriately by their grandparents. They took Will to see a Red Sox-Yankees game in Boston this past summer. After David Ortiz hit a home run for the Red Sox, Will immediately switched allegiances from New York to Boston. They took Emily to see South Pacific in New York. She came back and landed a part as the Cheshire Cat in her school’s performance of Alice and Wonderland.
This is Woody Durham, the son, the father, and the grandfather behind the man with the familiar voice.
• • •
Can you believe, even right now, some people are leaving? Unbelievable. I quit trying a long time ago to figure this group out.
The Tar Heels’ lead is safe with about a minute left. They’ll beat Michigan State. But Woody believes the fans should stay the duration, for the team. He holds them to high standards, same as he does himself.
He promotes UNC everywhere. Since he began calling games in 1971, the Tar Heels have had six football coaches and four basketball coaches. He’s constant in a business that requires change. Players can’t stay forever. Coaches can’t, either. But Woody, it seems, will always be there. He has no immediate plans to retire. Director of Athletics Dick Baddour recently told Woody that, aside from Williams and football coach Butch Davis, he’s the most recognizable face in the athletic department.
“It makes me feel good, but it makes me feel nervous,” he says. “To realize people look at me that way, I worry that I might not be able to live up to those expectations.”
In order to not let anyone down, Woody works.
After starting his morning doing an interview for a Learfield Sports affiliate, he drew up his meticulous scorecard, forged through rush-hour traffic, did his pregame interview with the coach, broadcast a high-intensity game between two powerhouse basketball programs, will put together a postgame summary that will be aired throughout the network in the morning, will be up at 7 a.m. again tomorrow to do another affiliate interview, will be at the Dean Dome at 11 a.m. for another interview, will tape a Tar Heels sports video weekly wrap at 1:30 p.m., and will not even be able to take his medicine until 3 p.m. because he didn’t have time for breakfast, and the daily prescriptions require food.
And they’re leaving early?
“His desire to make everything as good as it can be grates on some people,” Jean says. “They take that to mean he’s expecting too much from them. But he never expects anyone to do anything that he won’t do.”
• • •
So now, you listen.
Woody stands in front of a giant picture in the Smith Center — posing for a photo in front of a photo — with George Lynch dunking just above his head during one of Carolina’s most memorable games, a 21-point comeback against Florida State.
Your photographer asks Woody what year that was. Woody doesn’t immediately remember. So he turns to the photo. He looks right past Lynch, over Dean Smith’s full head of hair in the background, and into the fourth or fifth row of seats.
“That’s when Montross was playing,” he says, “because those are his parents right there. So it must be about 1993.”
The game was on Jan. 27, 1993.
More than dates or stats, Woody remembers the people. He remembers where their parents sat. He remembers the vindication he felt for Dean Smith and Roy Williams when they finally won national championships after being labeled coaches who “can’t win the big one.” He remembers watching Lawrence Taylor in the NFL changing the way the game of football is played, and thinking, “He played at Carolina.” He remembers Michael Jordan before he was the Michael Jordan.
And he remembers approaching Montross two months after the giant picture behind his head was taken, the night in 1993 when everyone in that photo celebrated as the Tar Heels were indeed national champions.
“Eric, as long as you live, this will be a part of you,” he told Montross. “The day you die, your obituary will read, ‘Eric Montross, of the 1993 national championship team of North Carolina.’ ”
Seventeen years later, during your search for what defines the man with the familiar voice, perhaps the most telling answer comes from Montross.
“Some people can hide behind a microphone and then go off-mic and they’re somebody totally different,” Montross says. “Not Woody. Woody’s the same guy.”