Woody Durham was a week shy of his 16th birthday when he landed a radio job at WZKY in Albemarle, N.C. Durham's mother had to drive him to his first day of work.
Wednesday morning, almost 53 years later, Durham stood before friends and family in Chapel Hill, N.C., and called it a career after four decades as the legendary radio voice of the North Carolina Tar Heels.
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I talked to Durham late Tuesday night.
"I want everybody to know that I'm retiring from doing the games but I'm not retiring from North Carolina," said Durham, who worked 1,805 football and basketball games for the Tar Heels (72 percent wins). "This has been in the works for a while and there were a number of people I needed to talk to, including Butch and Roy."
Butch Davis is the head football coach at North Carolina. Roy Williams is UNC's Hall of Fame basketball coach. Durham said that Williams, who had just gotten out of graduate school at North Carolina when Durham began calling Tar Heels football and basketball, got a little emotional on the phone.
"That was one of the toughest conversations," he said.
Durham, who began broadcasting North Carolina football and basketball in 1971, turns 70 in August but decided to step aside while he is still very much on top of his game. Known throughout the industry for his meticulous preparation and attention to detail (his multicolored game boards were works of art), Durham insisted that he could feel himself slipping a little bit. Those who know Durham as the consummate perfectionist will understand that he was not going to go on the air with anything less than his very best -- which he had given so consistently for 40 years. Durham set the bar very high and was unwilling to work below that standard.
"I hope my listeners to the network didn't hear this or pay attention to it but in the last couple of years I was bothered by my presentation," said Durham. "I misidentified some players. This season I just told myself I would do a better job but there were incidents when [the quality] just wasn't there."
Durham said when he was making this decision he recalled a meeting with Kentucky's Cawood Ledford, another broadcasting legend. It was at the 1993 Final Four; Ledford had retired the previous season. A lot of people thought Ledford had a lot of good years left when he walked away.
"I told Cawood I was surprised he didn't go another year or two but then he looked me right in the eye and he didn't crack a smile and said: 'Woody, when it's time you'll know.' I knew exactly what he was saying."
Durham has won just about every honor that a broadcaster in his field can win. He was named the North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year 13 times. At two of those banquets his son, Wes, was also named the Georgia Sportscaster of the Year. Wes Durham is in his 16th season as the radio voice for Georgia Tech. Both of Durham's sons, Wes and Taylor, agreed with the move.
"I remember when I first told Wes and Taylor. Wes's first reaction was 'Dad, that's good. You are doing it when it's your call,'" said Durham. "That stuck with me. I didn't want somebody coming to me five years from now telling me that I wasn't good anymore."
Durham also wants to travel with his wife Jean, whose only request is to see Cape Cod in the fall. "She did a great job of raising Wes and Taylor and she never complained about the job," said Durham. "I owe her for that."
Durham is in several halls of fame with several more to come now that he is stepping away from the microphone to serve as an ambassador to the university and to possibly write his memoirs.
Among those 1,805 broadcasts were 23 bowl games and 13 Final Fours. Bill Dooley was the head football coach when Durham started. Among the six coaches who worked with Durham was a young rising star named Mack Brown.
Durham was there for 28 of the 36 seasons that the legendary Dean Smith was the coach of Tar Heels basketball. He has called four of North Carolina's five NCAA men's basketball championships.
"How many people had the opportunity to have contact with Dean Smith on an almost daily basis?" asked Durham. "It really has been a great ride."
I've known Woody Durham since my days as a rookie sportswriter in Greensboro, N.C., in the mid-'70s. When it comes to talent, knowledge, and preparation he is one of the very best who has ever worked in his profession.
Trust me when I tell you that this is really big news in the state of North Carolina. But even if you're not in North Carolina or a Tar Heels fan, here is why you should care. With the retirement of Woody Durham we have lost yet another "voice" of college athletics. These are the men who stayed in one place so long that they eventually became the living personification of their schools:
• Kentucky's Ledford (1953-92), whose last game was Kentucky's dramatic overtime loss to Duke in the 1992 East Regional final.
• Georgia's Larry Munson (1966-2008), who had Bulldogs fans clinging on every word for 43 seasons.
• Mississippi State's Jack Cristil retired in February after 58 -- that's right 58 -- seasons calling football and basketball.
• The great John Ward, who stepped down after Tennessee's 13-0 national championship season in 1998. Ward did Tennessee football for 31 years and then decided it was time to move on.
• John Forney joined the Alabama broadcast team in 1953 and eventually called all 13 SEC championships and six national championships won by Paul "Bear" Bryant. He remained with the network until his death in 1997.
• Otis Boggs was Florida's radio voice for 43 seasons (1939-81).
The list goes on and on: Al Ciraldo at Georgia Tech (34 years), Paul Eells at Arkansas (34 years), John Ferguson at LSU (42 years), Bob Fulton at South Carolina (41 years), Jim Phillips at Clemson (36 years).
These men began their careers before television dominated the college football landscape. They were charged with bringing the color and pageantry of game day to the faraway corners of their state. They painted the picture of the game with their voices. And even when the games were on television, fans would turn down the sound and listen to their "voice" tell the story of the game.
The business has changed so much since they began. Radio is much more corporate, less emotional. These guys were all about creating an emotional bond with the fans of their respective schools.
And the point of today's exercise -- and the reason we tip our hat to Woody Durham -- is that there are not many of the true "voices" left in college football and basketball.
Bob Harris, who ironically grew up with Woody Durham in Albemarle, has been at Duke since 1976. Gene Deckerhoff has been at Florida State for 32 years. Johnny Holliday has been at Maryland for 32 years. There are many others.
When they are gone there will certainly be very talented, very competent people to take their place behind the microphone. But they won't be able to replace the passion and the loyalty that these men created over many generations. So enjoy them while you can.