Vanderbilt fans tuning into Saturday's radio broadcast of the Georgia Tech game on Atlanta's WQXI-AM may suddenly think they've traveled back in time. Wes Durham, the voice of Yellow Jacket football and basketball now in his eighth season, was Vandy's play-by-play voice from 1992-95.
As many Commodore fans recall, Durham departed Nashville to take the Georgia Tech job in 1995. Today, as Tech's Director of Broadcasting, he manages all the broadcast elements between the university and rightsholder ISP Sports. He also makes frequent appearances on Atlanta's WQXI (a.k.a. "SportsTalk 790 The Zone").
The deep-voiced Durham still has great memories of his three years in Nashville-- and as it turned out, they were three memorable years for Vanderbilt sports. His first year coincided with the Commodore men's team's glorious 28-6 run to the Sweet 16 under Eddie Fogler.
"We've had some good moments here at Georgia Tech in basketball," Durham told VandyMania last week. "I was lucky-- my first year here we went to the Sweet 16 with Stephon Marbury, Drew Barry and Matt Harpring, and Bobby Cremins finally got the program back to where Tech people thought it should be.
"But I still tell people, I'll take the game in Memorial Gym when Vanderbilt beat Kentucky, 101-86, in 1993 in Memorial Gym over any game I've ever called. Kentucky was No. 1 in the country. That was the night that all the things you'd ever heard about that building came into play."
The whole 1992-93 season is a sweet memory for Durham, as well as for all Vandy fans old enough to remember it. "I can still remember winning the game at Georgia, and we had just finished Coach Fogler's postseason interview at courtside in Athens-- and then hearing that Tennessee had beaten Kentucky in Knoxville," said Durham. "That was one of those few times when I have thought, wow, this is unbelievable."
The son of North Carolina broadcasting legend Woody Durham, Wes knew early on that he wanted to follow his father into the world of play-by-play announcing. Before coming to Vanderbilt he cut his teeth on jobs at Radford and Marshall. It was a chance meeting at the 1992 Mideast Regional in Lexington, Ky. that led him to his big break in Nashville.
"I was with Marshall at the time, and had no intentions of going anywhere," said Durham. "North Carolina was playing Ohio State in the Sweet 16 that night. I just happened to be sitting across the aisle and behind Coach Fogler, whom I had known since I was six.
"He said, hey, our radio announcer [Charlie McAlexander] has just left to go to Kentucky. Would you be interested in the job?
"I told him, I don't think I've got enough experience for a Vanderbilt-- I was only 26. Eddie said, yeah, you're young, but you know what you're doing. You could do this job. If you're interested, I think it's something you ought to pursue. You'd be a good fit for what we're trying to do there."
Durham, who'd been married less than a year, remembers watching North Carolina lose, and thinking throughout the game, what if this were to work out?
"I'll be honest, I was probably a pretty controversial hire. I think a lot of people in Nashville probably thought somebody else was coming to the job.
"I thought maybe I'd be a candidate for the job, but my hopes were not that high. I sent the tape in to American Network Group. I knew Paul Hoolahan [Vanderbilt's AD at the time] from his association with North Carolina. Then they called me for an interview-- and I'm always of the belief that if they call you for an interview, you've got a chance.
"They flew me in, I met with Paul, and I met with Don Williams at American Network Group-- and then I really wanted the job! I thought, if they're willing to take a chance on a guy who doesn't have that much experience, I'd be willing to work hard for them. They took the chance.
"They probably didn't have to pay me as much as they'd have had to pay somebody else! But that's OK. I was grateful for the opportunity."
Durham came on board in June, 1992, before Gerry Dinardo's second season as football coach. The next three football seasons were fairly good ones-- at least by Vanderbilt standards.
"Vandy went 4-7 in Gerry's second year, 1992," recalled Durham. "Then they were 5-6 the last two years that I did the games.
"I was talking the other night with Paul Federici-- who's now the head trainer with the Seahawks, we worked together at Vanderbilt-- I've always wondered what would have happened had Dinardo won the Tennessee game in 1992. They lost 29-25. Had Vanderbilt won that game that day, they would have finished 5-6 with a win over Tennessee. Would that have changed things?
"As it turned out, the next two years they had good teams. I think that may have been the closest they've been since to actually turning things around."
Durham also fondly recalls the day in 1994 when Vanderbilt went to Athens, Ga., and spoiled Georgia's Homecoming.
"I lay that one on Eric Zeier [former Georgia quarterback] every chance I get," laughed Durham.
"The Georgia people are always on me about the way the Georgia-vs.-Tech games ended in 1997, 1998 and 1999. A pass interference call in 1997 kept a winning drive alive for Georgia, and nullified an interception that would have won for Tech. In 1998 they talk about Joe Hamilton fumbling the ball when he was ruled out of bounds [in a game won 21-19 by Tech]. And everybody knows about Jasper Sanks' controversial alleged fumble in 1999 [an overtime game won 51-48 by Tech].
"I always tell Georgia people, before you start down that road... why don't you tell me about your 1994 Homecoming game?"
The most memorable play of that game for Durham was safety Eric Vance's interception in front of the Georgia bench. "That's still one of the greatest plays I've ever seen," he says.
His final football game at Vanderbilt was a sour memory, however-- a 65-0 thrashing at the hands of Tennessee. "I remember joking with someone, I guess that was good enough to get Dinardo the LSU job."
"I didn't know that would be my last game at the time. I went through the whole scene with Rod Dowhower coming in, and watching spring practices. Then all of a sudden the Georgia Tech job came open."
Durham had already turned down overtures from South Carolina in the summer of '95, but the Georgia Tech opportunity proved too good for him to pass up. For an announcer raised on Atlantic Coast Conference basketball, the lure of Tech was too powerful. But the decision was nonetheless difficult.
"The people in Nashville were just so good to us. We'd lost one of our best friends-- Ken Hudgens, director of the Commodore Club, had just passed away, and we really missed Ken. Had it not been Atlanta, had it not been Tech, had it not been the ACC, I would probably still be in Nashville."
As Georgia Tech's football program has taken a turn for the good in recent years, Durham's voice has become almost as recognizable on the Atlanta airwaves as that of Al Ciraldo, his legendary predecessor at Georgia Tech. In 1999 Durham was named Georgia Sportscaster of the Year.
But although Atlanta is now his adopted home, Durham has maintained ties with many of his friends from his three years in Nashville.
"I saw Paul Hoolahan about a month ago at the ACC Kickoff. I guess I probably didn't leave at the best time for him, but I think he understands I'm grateful for the opportunity he gave me.
"I still have a friendship with Coach Fogler. I still speak to Coach Dinardo once a year, or we exchange notes. I've written to Coach [Jan] Van Breda Kolff a couple of times when he's had success, and I wrote to him when he went out to Pepperdine. Buzz Peterson [former Vandy basketball assistant, now head coach at Tennessee] and I are good friends to this day. We knew each other before that, but we really became good friends.
"I think anywhere you go, you learn something that helps you somewhere else. Our broadcasts [at Vanderbilt] got to a point where they were really good. Ron Bargatze [Durham's color analyst in basketball] was just so good, and Ralph Miranda was working with us in football the last couple of years.
"Everybody says, they didn't win there that much-- did that bother you? And it didn't-- because you liked the people. The environment was so great. As much as the deck might be stacked against them sometimes-- they hire good people."
Durham holds the highest admiration for longtime fans of the Black and Gold. "The people who support Vanderbilt-- from the sidewalk alums all the way to the people like John Rich and Bronson Ingram's family-- those people want to win just as bad as the people at Michigan or anywhere else. Their day will come.
"And when it does, it will mean so much more to them."
Wes Durham's broadcast of Saturday night's Vanderbilt-Georgia Tech game can be heard in Atlanta on WQXI-AM, 790 on the dial. Kickoff is 6 p.m. EDT.
Coming later this week on VandyMania Premium: Wes Durham gives an exclusive, in-depth scouting report on the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.