UPDATE on March 7, 2018: Today the retired and longime voice of UNC basketball and football Woody Durham passed away at age 76. This is something I wrote three years ago when the Mebane native was honored by the Naismith Memorial National Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. with a lifetime achievement award for broadcasting. Woody suffered from from Primary Progressive Aphasia, a neurocognitive disorder that impacted his ability to speak. His family members, two having deep connections to Elon and broadcasting, have become advocates. I also consider Taylor Durham and Wes Durham friends. This is one in a series of stories published by the News & Observer of Raleigh about Woody, his situation and his family.
I wanted to share that link and this column I wrote about Woody’s incredible career and honor two years ago. My condolences today to Wes, Taylor and the entire Durham family.
ACC radio and TV broadcasters are part of the soundtrack of my life. It couldn’t be helped and it didn’t really matter whether I followed a particular team or not. People like Gene Overby, Nick Pond, Bob Harris, Jim Thacker, Billy Packer and Bucky Waters were the major and sometimes only lifelines to the games I loved in those pre-cable and ESPN days.
They made memories.
And one distinctive voice towered above the rest. That would be Woody Durham.
Durham was the man behind the microphone for UNC football and basketball — by far the most popular collegiate team in our state with outlets on too many AM and FM stations to count. His voice was propelled by power generated via millions upon millions of combined radio watts from the mountains to the sea. He was heard by thousands of Tar Heels fans from 1971 to 2011 on radio and co-hosted coaches’ TV shows with everyone from Dean Smith and Bill Dooley to Mack Brown.
Count my mother among his listeners. My late father was not. We were a divided household when it came to college sports. My UNC-grad mom adored the Heels. My Demon Deacon-diplomaed dad tuned in to Overby, the voice of Wake Forest sports. By comparison, Overby, of Reidsville, was heard on about three radio stations statewide with a combined wattage of around 500.
So while the Wake signal was always, well, weak, Woody Durham could be heard loud and clear. Even a UNC hater who found him annoying as a result would have to concede the man had some game when it came to calling games. At least I did.
That’s why it was gratifying to see on Thursday night at the ancestral home of basketball he got that kind of recognition nationally. Durham, joined by sons Wes and Taylor, was honored at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. with the Curt Gowdy Media Award for lifetime achievement in basketball broadcasting and reporting. According to Wes, he joins the late Cawood Ledford of Kentucky and Max Falkenstein of Kansas, as “honorees who spent their entire career broadcasting college basketball.” While the award was announced in February, Thursday night was when Durham actually picked up the hardware.
GROWING UP I first knew Woody Durham as the sports director of WFMY in Greensboro. He was my primary connection to sports scores. Back then, WFMY, WSJS (later changed to WXII) and WGHP offered the only real window into sports news outside of the daily newspaper. Think about that for a second. Today, that same kind of news almost can’t be avoided.
So even before I realized Durham was the “Voice of the Tar Heels” he was a pretty significant figure in the life of this rural North Carolina kid who was developing a love of sports. He along with Johnny Phelps of Mebane had not only scores, but highlights. This miracle only occurred at 6 and 11 p.m. — not on a loop 24-hours a day with endless commentary about deflated footballs tossed in between.
Yeah, I’m old.
After moving to Burlington the first time in 1984 I discovered the deep Durham connection to Alamance County. He was born in Mebane. When I was a sports writer here in the mid-1980s Wes was enrolled at then-Elon College where he worked Fightin’ Christians football games as a student and spent at least one summer helping with Burlington Indians broadcasts. I always noted that Wes worked hard, was willing to do whatever it might take to get better at the family business and had a voice eerily similar to that of his dad — something the late Bill Hunter noted in a column I wish I still had.
Wes went on to become the voice of Georgia Tech athletics and now works for Fox Sports and SportsSouth. He also calls Atlanta Falcons football games. Taylor also has a strong Elon connection. I first met him a couple of years ago. He is an account executive for IMG Sports and his responsibility is Elon University where he’s also the voice of Elon football and basketball on radio.
Thursday night, they were all together.
THE NAMES OF former winners of the Curt Gowdy Award reads like a who’s who of broadcasting legends. Gowdy himself called the first Final Four I remember watching on TV and also ushered in my longtime love of baseball via the old NBC Game of the Week. Yes, there was only one game televised a week back then.
Yeah, I’m not getting younger.
They started giving the Gowdy Award in 1990. Who are the other winners? Well, the list includes Dick Enberg, Bob Costas, Jim Nantz, Marv Albert, Bob Ryan, Bob Hammel and Dave Kindred. It also lists Billy Packer and Dick Vitale — but don’t hold that against the organization. It’s an honor built to recognize writers and broadcasters who made a contribution to basketball.
Durham certainly fits the description. It’s estimated that he called more than 1,800 football and basketball games in his career, 13 Final Fours and four national title contests. He was North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year 13 times.
His career arc overlaps Smith and Roy Williams. He was there when Michael Jordan hit the shot, Walter Davis doomed Duke, and Chris Webber called timeout. He witnessed Mitch Kupchak and Tyler Hansborough. And we shared the same press booth the day the Smith Center opened. I was a couple of seats away from him furiously taking notes during a classic Duke-UNC game when I heard Durham exclaim, “Dawkins from 15-501!”
Another memory made.