Woody Durham: A look back at the career of 'The Voice of the Tar Heels'

Woody Durham, who for 40 years served as the radio play-by-play voice of North Carolina football and basketball, died early Wednesday morning at his Chapel Hill home.
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Woody Durham, who for 40 years served as the radio play-by-play voice of North Carolina football and basketball, died early Wednesday morning at his Chapel Hill home.

Luke DeCock

In sorrow, follow Woody's advice: Go where you go, and do what you do.

By Luke DeCock


March 07, 2018 09:43 AM

Go where you go, and do what you do.

There's no better way to honor the spirit and memory of Woody Durham than to obey, at this moment of sorrow, his most cherished commandment of North Carolina fandom.

He was, for four decades, the unifying voice of the Tar Heels, the Stanly County-tinged background sound to so many great moments in North Carolina history: Four basketball national championships, 13 Final Fours, 23 bowl games.

Durham, who died early Wednesday morning at age 76, had been silenced in his final years by aphasia, an ironically cruel affliction that robbed the figurative voice of Carolina athletics of his literal voice.

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He occupied a position few have and none ever will again: Arriving in the job in 1971, at the end an era when most games were consumed by radio, Durham was the primary point of contact with the team for fans all over the state who would never find their way into Carmichael Auditorium or Kenan Stadium. That built a bond that endured long after every game found its way onto television and the Tar Heels made their way into the Smith Center.

It's impossible to overstate the importance men like Durham once held to fans; his eyes became their eyes, his voice their truth. Only through consummate professionalism could an announcer earn their trust, as Durham did.

VIDEO: Listen to his message to his fans which was released June 1.


By the time he retired in 2011, Durham had outlasted Dean Smith by a decade. His voice linked fans across generations, across championships, in a way a coach never could. When the 1982 team returned home to be honored at Kenan Stadium after winning the national championship, the applause for Durham when he entered the stadium was as loud as any for Smith or the players.

He became the personal embodiment of North Carolina athletics, past and present united as one, and as his trademark exclamation underlined – intoned gravely at moments of peril for the Tar Heels – he was a fan at heart, one who enjoyed sitting next to his wife Jean at the Smith Center right to the end.

Even if you weren't a fan of North Carolina, there was something about Durham's voice that transcended partisanship. The timbre and cadence was uniquely of the state, of the era, of the times. Durham's drawl predated the increasing homogenization of American dialect, and it took only a few bars to draw a circle on a map that would certainly have Albemarle somewhere inside it. His was the voice of North Carolina, a university and a state.

For 40 years, Woody Durham was the voice of the Tar Heels, their radio play-by-play man. The Smith Center had been his place of work. Now, a neurocognitive disease threatens to rob him of his ability to speak.


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You can hear some of it now in the sons who followed in his footsteps, Wes of the Atlanta Falcons and ACC Network, Taylor of Elon, but the father had something unique: languid with the elongated vowels of the Piedmont as the action percolated along, then high-pitched and frantic as it crescendoed.

He chose the words that defined great moments for the Tar Heels. He painted the picture. In some cases, his calls became as cherished as the plays themselves.

“Gets it to Walter Davis … two, one … Walter takes the shot … it's good! The game is tied! Unbelievable!”

“Stackhouse breaking in on Parks … reverse dunk and he gets fouled by Parks … Oh my goodness! What a dunk by Stackhouse!”

“He takes a timeout and they're out of timeouts! Technical foul! Technical foul on Michigan! They're out of timeouts. … Two shots and possession of the ball with 11 seconds remaining. … And the party is ready to begin on Franklin Street!”

“He'll give the ball to McLendon … he leaps … oh, he doesn't get in! He fumbled the football! Carolina holds! The game is over!”

“Snap. Spot. Kick away. High enough. Long enough. It's good! It's good! Carolina has won the game on a 42-yard field goal by freshman Connor Barth. Good gosh Gertie!”

Each of those calls needs no context. And one, probably above all others:

“Fred Brown … looking … threw it away to Worthy!”

So go where you go, and do what you do. That's what Woody always wanted when times got tough, and for anyone who grew attached to that voice, this is as tough a time as there is.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock