Scott Fowler

How beloved announcer Woody Durham was window into the soul of UNC sports

There is magic in a voice with a good story to tell.

In this current age of screens, screeds and screaming, perhaps you have forgotten this. But you knew it once when you were little and somebody entranced you by using words and nothing more.

Woody Durham – the radio play-by-play announcer for North Carolina football and basketball games for 40 years – knew where to find that magic. Durham died Wednesday at age 76. Somewhere in heaven right now he is listing the hometowns of every Tar Heels basketball player from 1982 to a mesmerized angel.

Woody – and let’s call him that, because everyone did - combined a stately Southern drawl with the natural drama of a college game and made it sing. The phrase “Let’s listen to Woody” became a mantra in N.C. households from Murphy to Manteo for decades. Tar Heels fans would turn down the TV – where the announcers were studiously neutral – and turn up the Carolina-blue words of Woody.

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams stretches his arms to hug Woody Durham in 2015 during a public memorial service for former basketball coach Dean Smith. Durham was the radio play-by-play announcer for the first NCAA championship teams for both Williams and Smith. David T. Foster, III

He was beloved in part because every generation of students for four decades knew who he was and what he represented as surely as they knew where the Old Well was located on campus. Yes, I was one of those students, but you didn’t have to attend UNC to appreciate Woody – whose hard work before the game made it all sound so easy on-air.

Players came and went.

Coaches came and went.

Woody stayed.

Conversations with Dean

From 1971-2011, from Kenan Stadium to Carmichael Auditorium to the Smith Center, his resonant voice poured like maple syrup through radios everywhere. He was part of the era when a voice became synonymous with a team. He was often the first and only point of contact for fans who didn’t have the money or the time to drive to Chapel Hill and watch a game themselves. They felt like they knew him even if they had never met him.

Woody knew things, too. A cruel disease called Primary Progressive Aphasia robbed him of his legendary voice in recent months – and complications from that disease ultimately caused his death. But long before that, we once had a two-hour conversation about all sorts of things.

I especially liked to listen to Woody talk about former basketball coach Dean Smith, because Smith was an expert at deflecting questions and Woody was one of the few who could get Smith to let his guard down.

Woody Durham was the radio play-by-play voice for the North Carolina Tar Heels from 1971-2011. The News & Observer Robert Willett

Woody told me this story about a conversation in 1981 with Smith :

“Coach Smith and I were some place on campus – I think I was taking him back over to Carmichael. We were riding along and I said, ‘Coach, how’s practice going?’ He said, ‘Oh, pretty good. I really think the youngster from Wilmington is going to be able to help us.’”

The youngster, of course, was Michael Jordan.

“The most understated – and prophetic – comment I ever heard,” Woody chortled.

When Michael Jordan (left) was a freshman, North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith told Woody Durham that “the youngster from Wilmington is going to be able to help us.” Raleigh News & Observer TNS

I also asked Woody in that conversation who he thought Smith would really have loved to coach during his career but couldn’t.

“Ralph Sampson,” Woody said quickly of the former All-American center at Virginia. “Of all the players he recruited but didn’t get, Ralph would be the one. One time he said: ‘Ralph Sampson. It would have been fun to have coached him.’ And then he just let his voice trail off.”

The end of an era

A 1963 graduate of UNC, Woody was a bridge to an era that not many people remember firsthand now. He grew up mostly in Albemarle. He loved North Carolina football first, watching the teams of the Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice era in the late 1940s. He fell in love with Tar Heels basketball watching the 1957 national championship team – the one that beat Wilt Chamberlain in the national final to finish 32-0 - on some of the first games ever broadcast on television in North Carolina.

Woody Durham is seen in 2005 at the Final Four in St. Louis, a few days before Durham called the action for North Carolina’s 2005 national championship win. Durham, a fixture in the broadcasting booth for 40 years for UNC basketball and football games, died in March at age 76. David T. Foster

By 1971, Woody was the radio play-by-play voice for his beloved alma mater. He would eventually describe the Tar Heels basketball team winning four more national championships – in 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. Was he objective? No. Was he entertaining? Absolutely.

Ultimately, Woody was a window into the soul of the Tar Heels – a stained-glass window. He not only let the light in, but he separated it into colors and made it prettier along the way.

Like so many others, I will miss him. And the voice.

And the magic.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

Related stories from Charlotte Observer