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Woody Durham: ‘Voice of the Tar Heels’

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North Carolinians of Note

By Ellen Werner
UNC-Chapel Hill
Woody Durham was sitting with friends at a restaurant several years ago, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Excuse me for interrupting your dinner, but I recognized your voice,” a man from a nearby table said.
Known as the “Voice of the Tar Heels” for the 40 years he spent doing radio broadcasts for UNC-Chapel Hill basketball and football, Durham is no stranger to Carolina sports fans, even those who have never seen his wrinkled, friendly face.
Unlike some celebrities, Durham welcomes the attention.
“When fans quit recognizing your voice and quit asking for autographs,” Durham says, laughing heartily, “that’s when you’re in trouble.”
Tar Heel-born, Tar Heel-bred
Woody Lombardi Durham was born on Aug. 8, 1941, in Mebane, but grew up 94 miles away in Albemarle.
Durham played sports as a child, but in 1957, during his high school district championship game, he realized he would never play college football.
“I was not college material,” Durham says, “but I loved football. Sports were part of me.”
He decided to merge his passions.
“I thought to myself, ‘I ought to take this love for sports and broadcasting and see what I can make of it.’”
When Jake Presson, manager of the Albemarle radio station WZKY, offered a job to 16-year-old Durham, he jumped at the chance to escape the part-time job he had as a shoe salesman.
Just days before starting his new job, Durham met Jean, his future wife, at a debate workshop at Wake Forest University. The two dated during high school and college and wed on June 23, 1963, shortly after Durham graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in radio, television and motion pictures.
They had their first son, Wes, in 1966, and, seven years later, their son Taylor was born. Sandwiched between their sons’ births was the birth of Durham’s 40-year career covering UNC sports.

Becoming the ‘Voice’
Durham had not set out to become the Voice of the Tar Heels in 1971 when he accepted the job.
“It was not a long-range goal of mine to do Carolina games,” Durham says. “It was a long-range goal of mine to be the lead football and basketball announcer for the Atlantic Coast Conference.”
Shortly after accepting his job, Durham learned a valuable lesson—preparation is key.
He needed four days to prepare for football games and two days for basketball.
One Friday night before a Carolina home football game, Durham and his wife attended a get-together at a friend’s house. The couple returned home around 9 p.m. Though tired, Durham started preparing for the next day’s game, but around 2 a.m. he headed to bed, leaving some work for the morning.
Durham did not wake up as he had planned, scrambled to get everything together and barely made the game.
The lesson, Durham says, “Do it—whatever it takes, get it done.”
Durham passed this lesson on to his sons. Though their father applied no pressure on them to do so, both chose careers in sports and credit their father.
Wes serves as play-by-play radio announcer for Georgia Tech and the Atlanta Falcons. Taylor works as a college account executive for International Management Group (IMG) in Winston-Salem.
“The best advice my father ever gave me,” Taylor says, “was to be prepared for any challenge that comes my way.”
“If you’re not prepared to have a good broadcast, you’re not going to have one, regardless of whether your team wins or loses,” Wes says, echoing his father’s advice.
“It’s always an unbelievable compliment for people to make comparisons, saying, ‘You sound like your dad’ or something like that,” Wes says. “I do the same thing he does or did. He’s been my greatest influence, my biggest fan and my best critic. I’ve always cherished that.”

The payoff
Woody Durham’s dedication to UNC opened doors to 23 bowl games, 13 Final Fours and four National Championships.
For each of the national championship wins, the University gave Durham a championship ring. Durham wears a bright silver ring, framed by diamonds and stamped with the year “2009,” the year of the Tar Heel’s most recent championship.
More subtle are his Tar Heel lapel pin and the UNC logo on the face of his gold watch.
To Durham, no games compare to National Championships. When asked why, he speaks of the moments that define Carolina basketball. He recalls details from the 2009 National Championship.
“UNC dissected the Spartans,” he says. “You look back now and can say it was over at halftime.”
One memory etched in his mind was the look of joy MVP Tyler Hansbrough had on his face after the game.
“When Tyler Hansbrough walked across the court after that game, he looked like he was about 12 years old.”
But, basketball highlights are not limited to National Championships. Durham recalls other moments, such as the 1974 UNC-Duke game, when Carolina came back from an 8-point deficit in 17 seconds, Michael Jordan’s college career and Carolina basketball’s 100-year anniversary in 2010.
The fact that Durham did more than simply describe plays on the court or field was what allowed him to stick around at UNC for so long.
The excitement and pace of Durham’s voice matched that of the players. The audience heard about a great play, not just through Durham’s words but also through the tone of his voice, which revealed his love and respect for the Tar Heels.
Achievements also mark Durham’s career. Twelve times, Durham was named North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year.
The governor awarded him The Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2011 for exemplary service to North Carolina.
Although Durham was a valuable asset to UNC, he was never technically a full-time employee of the university. The job was never about the money.
“I made enough that I could have a comfortable life,” Durham says. “If it satisfied me, it was enough.”
His wife, Jean appreciates official recognition of Durham’s contributions.
“I’m not sure that people realize how hard he worked to make it look so easy.”

After the final buzzer
When the final buzzer sounded on March 27, 2011, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the Tar Heels lost the East Regional final against the University of Kentucky and also its Voice.
During the months leading up to that game, Durham began noticing small errors in his announcing. A mistake during the game signaled the end of his career.
“I had been calling a player by the wrong first name for the first five minutes of the game,” Durham says. “That’s inexcusable. A lot of people have to be carried out of UNC kicking and screaming when the university decides it’s their time to go. That wasn’t going to be me.”
So, in 2011, after 40 years of announcing football and basketball games, 70 percent of which were victories, Durham retired at age 69.
What was his plan for retirement? Write a book.
Durham wrote “Woody Durham: A Tar Heel Voice” with co-author Adam Lucas who has written numerous books related to Carolina sports.
For Lucas, working with Durham was an incredible experience.
“When I was a junior in high school,” Lucas says, “I interviewed Durham and wrote a paper about him. Every Carolina fan has a memory with Woody.”
Now that 71-year-old Durham can check off “write a book” from his to-do list, what’s next?
“It’s hard for me to believe he’s retired because he seems to be as busy as he ever was,” Jean says. “But the simple things have become the exciting things,” “We have seen two movies in the past two weekends, something we seldom had time for.”
Even though his career is over, UNC still has a hold on Durham. He hasn’t missed a home football game and has missed only one home basketball game since his retirement. He is also involved with UNC’s Alumni Association, helping plan his class’s 50-year reunion. This commitment has earned Durham praise from everyone from his sons to the legendary sportscaster Dick Vitale.
“Woody Durham had a unique passion for North Carolina sports. He was Mr. Loyalty.”
Durham explained himself well when he said, “This place gets in your blood.”