Thad: An Institution

At what point does a human being become an institution?

At what point does a human being become an institution? The question admits of no exact answer, but if anyone can claim to be an institution in himself, it's Woody Durham. His voice is inextricably attached not just to University of North Carolina sports, but to the collective memories of hundreds of thousands of Tar Heel followers.

How good was Durham at what he did? Consider this: being the announcer for Tar Heel basketball and football is a job that a lot of people covet in their dreams. I mean, who wouldn't want that job? But I have never met a single supporter of UNC athletics who thought that anyone other than Durham should have that position; Woody Durham calling Carolina games has struck most people as just part of the Natural Order of Things, as fitting and appropriate as adding peanut butter to jelly. Likewise, while fans have speculated for years about who might come after Durham, just about everyone has concurred that Durham earned the right to make his own decision on when to call it a day.

That day has come, and it's entirely appropriate that Carolina fans salute Durham, as well as dig into their memory banks and pick out some favorite moments.

For me, some of the most poignant moments were from the late 1970s, when not every game was on television and attendance in crowded Carmichael Auditorium a rare privilege. I vividly recall listening to WCHL's coverage during the 1978-79 season of home games against Virginia (a win in double overtime) and Michigan State (with Earvin Johnson), called with enthusiasm and descriptive precision by Durham. Durham's gift, I think, was to be able to illustrate verbally the tension of a moment — to keep the listener at home hanging on the edge of his or her seat. In those pre-shot clock days, each halfcourt possession in close games was especially tense, and one could feel the drama of each nuance of action, as when Durham would report that a player "had a notion, but didn't take it." The fact that someone like me still recalls those games as among the most exciting Tar Heel wins of my early childhood — games I never saw — speaks to Durham's effectiveness.

Later on came the ESPN era and the expansion of television coverage to virtually every Tar Heel game. Our household was among those that generally turned the television sound down, preferring Durham's call over the network announcers. It speaks volumes about the respect (and affection) Durham commanded that for many Carolina fans, a prized memento of the 1981-82 championship season was an audiotape of Durham's call of the game — capped of course by "threw it away to Worthy!" and "The Tar Heels are going to win the national ... championship!"

Much later, when I began to make appearances every now and then on press row, I got to consider Durham's job from a different angle (and see firsthand the famously detailed research notes he prepared for every game). Being the official announcer of a college team involves walking a tight rope: clearly, the call of a game is presented from a point of view (in this case, a point of view that wants North Carolina to win), and certainly Durham was very conscious of the connection he was making with listening fans (hence admonitions to "go where you go and do what you do." But the play-by-play man also needs to describe the action accurately, and also deal with things matter-of-factly when things aren't going well for the team with whom you are identified.

Durham walked that tightrope about as well anyone could. I remember a very brief exchange with him back in the 2004-05 basketball season. Carolina was playing an overmatched opponent in the Smith Center the evening after a football loss to Boston College in a bowl game in Charlotte that afternoon. I mentioned to Durham after the basketball game that I'd heard his call of the first quarter of the football game, adding how much I enjoyed it. He thanked me in that impressive baritone, then went on to say in effect that Carolina should have won that game. The response was terse and its content professional, but the tone and meaning were clear: Durham really was hurt that Carolina had let that one get away.

Of course, the good days far out-numbered the bad ones during Durham's tenure. One of my favorite more recent memories of Durham's announcing was his calls during the 2000 NCAA Tournament, as Bill Guthridge's team overcame a disappointing regular season to reach the Final Four. Without going overboard, Durham made it very clear that he regarded the run as a vindication of Guthridge against the critics and those "who should have known better."

That ability to communicate emotion and even passion while retaining full control of one's diction is a rare gift, in good times and bad, and is the primary reason so many fans were able to connect to Durham's work. That distinctive voice did more than reach into people's portable headsets, living rooms, and car radios. It also reached into listeners' hearts and memory banks. Durham didn't make the events on the court and field happen of course; but so often, for so many years, he was the channel by which listeners learned of the events — not just what had happened, but their emotional meaning as well. Durham's ecstatic calls when Carolina won the national title in basketball didn't just describe the event — they were part of the event itself.

Likewise Durham didn't just describe Carolina basketball and football — he was part of Carolina basketball and football himself.

It's mind-boggling to think Woody Durham and that voice won't be around anymore. He is due all the appreciation he gets, as well as congratulations on an outstanding professional career.

I do hope it's not quite over yet. I suspect he's been taking notes all these years, and could write a heck of a memoir. If and when he does, I'll be first in line to buy it.


Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.


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