Thursday, April 21, 2011

Woo-dy, Woo-dy, Woody

Adam Lucas on Woody Durham's retirement.
April 20, 2011

North Carolina radio play-by-play announcer Woody Durham smiles during a news conference at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, April 20, 2011. Durham said the time is right for him to retire after 40 years of calling some of the biggest sports moments in school history. (AP)

The day I turned 16 years old, I was finally free on the open road. Unleashed alone on the streets of Cary, N.C., I rolled out of my driveway with the car windows down and the only soundtrack on the stereo that made sense to me--a cassette tape of Woody Durham's call of the 1982 national championship game.

For this new chapter of my life, I needed something familiar. And there was nothing more familiar than Woody's even tones. I almost had the tape memorized. When James Worthy dunked on Sleepy Floyd, it was "GAS-tonia on GAS-tonia." Sam Perkins was a "soph-o-more." And Michael Jordan's winning shot was, as it has every time it's been replayed over the years, going to come from "out on the left...GOOD!"

This probably seems like ancient history now, but there was a time when every Carolina game wasn't televised. And when I'd go up into our playroom to reenact the games as they were happening--I was a Nerf goal All-America--I had to have Woody on the stereo. Go where you go. Go to war Ms. Agnes. Somebody call the, law, law.

And by around the sixth game of the year, you knew every hometown by heart.

Binghamton, New York: King Rice. Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania: Dante Calabria. Queens, New York: Kenny Smith. Staunton, Virginia: Kevin Madden.

Woody taught me those, and hundreds more. Think of all the unforgettable moments of your life that you've experienced through Woody's eyes. He's described them, sure. That makes him an announcer. What makes him Woody is that he's described them the way you want a Tar Heel to describe them.

"One and one no longer make two," said Mick Mixon, who worked beside Woody for 15 years and now serves as the voice of the Carolina Panthers. "Water no longer freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Woody Durham is no longer the voice of the Tar Heels."

In 1990, my dad and I turned down the sound while watching on TV (the only way to watch a Carolina game) and then danced around the den in jubilation when Woody said, "The game is over!" after Rick Fox and the Tar Heels beat Oklahoma. In 1991, I sat in our family's car in our driveway so I could hear Woody call the final moments of the East Regional win over Temple, the first time in my awareness as a Tar Heel fan that Carolina advanced to the Final Four. On New Year's Eve 1993, in Atlanta at the Marriott Marquis, I was among a throng of Tar Heel fans who welcomed the football Tar Heels back to the hotel after a pulsating win over Mississippi State in the Peach Bowl. We cheered for Bracey Walker, who'd made two terrific defensive plays. We cheered for Natrone Means, who couldn't be tackled. We cheered for Mack Brown, who had turned around Tar Heel football. And then we saw Woody, and there was only one thing to say--the same thing students shouted en masse at home football games:

"Woo-dy! Woo-dy! Woo-dy!"

In tenth grade, my high school English teacher assigned us to write a biographical sketch of someone we admired who had been influential in our lives. I chose Woody. Despite having no idea who I was, he met with me for nearly an hour--and I've now watched him do the same thing every year, for dozens of high schoolers and college students who need "just a few minutes" to help understand how the boy from Albemarle turned into the Voice of the Tar Heels.

"When Woody got the job, my boss at the time was Dick Cashwell, who had been in school with Woody," said athletic director Dick Baddour. "They announced Woody was taking over, and Dick Cashwell said to me, `When Woody Durham came to college, he had a goal. He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be the voice of the Tar Heels.' Woody got to realize his dream for 40 years."

It was fitting that Woody spent Tuesday, the night before his official retirement, serving as master of ceremonies for a charity dinner. He's hosted far more of those than anyone knows, and the golf tournament he founded, the Carolina Kids Classic, has raised over $3 million for children across North Carolina. Tonight, he'll head to Raleigh with the Rams Club's Tar Heel Tour. Being Woody Durham meant being on the air 50 or more times a year, talking to us through our radios. But it's also meant getting out into the public and meeting us first-hand, and maybe that's why he's always been more than just a voice to Carolina fans. It's a tribute to his longevity and the changes he's seen that he began the job at a time when the primary method of receiving out-of-town scores was the blackboard outside Jeff's Confectionery on Franklin Street, and left the job with his name trending worldwide on Twitter.

It was hard to know whether Wednesday morning's press conference--so packed with media and athletic department staff that Roy Williams, who'd flown in from Texas, had to perch on the arm of a chair--was happy or sad. Maybe it was a little of both. Either way, it was the end of an era.

There had been some signs it was coming. At the ACC Tournament, where the entire Tar Heel Sports Network crew broadcasts every minute of every game, Woody paused before a quarterfinal game and said, "You know, anyone who didn't get the opportunity to know Coach Guthridge really missed out." It was the kind of reflective comment a man thinking back on his career might make. At dinner with a boisterous group in Newark the night before Carolina played Marquette in the round of 16, Woody said out of the blue, "Dinners like this help make these road trips fun." It was true, but usually went unspoken. This time, he said it.

But even if he was occasionally pondering the end of a storied career, it never showed through on the air.

"Especially when we did games at the Smith Center, I always loved when there was a big play," said Eric Montross, who provides color analysis on the Tar Heel Sports Network. "He throws his arms back with a big, `Whoa!' and goes back on two legs of his chair. I always felt like I might need to grab him to make sure he wasn't falling over. Forty years into a job, you might think the excitement would taper off. But he was still as excited as ever."

At the conclusion of every basketball season, which usually arrives unexpectedly, there's a melancholy last-day-of-school feeling. There are handshakes and the occasional hug. When the Tar Heel Sports Network went off the air after Carolina's loss to Kentucky, I looked for Woody. Even before Jones Angell finished the final sign-off, however, Woody was already gone. He'd already packed his boards into his work bag and was headed for the team bus. He was gone.

His wife of 47 years, Jean Durham, has seen Tallahassee in the fall. She's seen Clemson in the fall. She's seen Chestnut Hill and College Park and Blacksburg in the fall.

"She really wants," Woody said on Wednesday morning, "to see Cape Cod in the fall."

They've earned the opportunity to see it together.

And what about us? For the first time in years, I've got the strong urge to listen to a cassette tape.

Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly. He is also the author or co-author of six books on Carolina basketball, including the official chronicle of the first 100 years of Tar Heel hoops, A Century of Excellence, which is available now. Get real-time UNC sports updates from the THM staff on Twitter.

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