One of Tobacco Road basketball's lesser-touted but nonetheless enduring traditions is the hatred at all four schools of television announcing. Raycom or ESPN, Dan Bonner or Mike Patrick, Dick Vitale or, especially, the execrable Billy Packer — depending on your household, they're all either utterly biased against each school of the Big Four or unconscionable shills for them.
North Carolinians didn't invent the concept of watching a sports broadcast with the TV muted and a radio supplying the play-by-play. But it's certainly become a cultural marker, not to mention a necessity given the depth of our basketball rivalries and passions. Guys my age recall the voices of Wake's Gene Overby, State's Wally Ausley, or Duke's Bob Harris who, unlike the TV crew, were always hawkeyed for that foul or travel that the ref didn't call on the other team, and discreetly observant of the ones your team got away with, and always a split-second ahead of the action.
The greatest of all these men, UNC's Woody Durham, retired today. Though I went to State, if I may say so, Durham's departure creates a void greater than the one left when Dean Smith retired in 1997. I simply can't recall anyone other than Durham calling a game for the ACC's flagship university, and indeed, he got the job in 1971, two years before I was born. Durham succeeded someone named Bill Currie, a fact I did not know before today.
In a rivalry, you parody your rival's symbols, and the invective directed at UNC usually paints it as mythologically overrated. Not Woody Durham, ever. Yesterday I told friends that Durham's departure is to North Carolinians what Vin Scully's retirement will mean to Dodger fans.
Woody, like Scully, was above all else a comfortable listen. The man never assaulted you with minutiae or trod on the action. In a medium given to verbal tics, clichés, or ostentatiousness, Durham's only peculiarities, that I recall, were calling the midcourt stripe the "timeline" and calling any kickoff of modest hangtime a "sky kick." He had a singsong way of saying "No good!" for a missed shot, and if you were listening alongside the TV, you'd hear it before it left the shooter's hands, both enlightening and utterly maddening.
But if I couldn't recall Durham's foibles, I was likewise stuck to remember a signature line — and the man called four national championships, plus a bathtub full of all-time great games on the way to them. I went to my father, a North Carolina graduate and longtime TV-muter/radio-player himself, to make sure I wasn't shorting Durham. Dad said he could recall one — a late third down against Duke in the late 1970s, running back Amos Lawrence ripping off an 11-yard run to cap a comeback as time ran out. Here's the call:
"Handoff to Amos Lawrence on the draw; touchdown Carolina."
It misses the inflection, the enthusiasm, the lilting manner in which Durham said "Carolina," as iconic to my ears as Keith Jackson saying "Alabama." Anyone who heard Durham knows why that would be a memorable call. It was memorable for the accomplishments it described. It didn't pretend to be the accomplishment itself.
Who knows what kind of broadcaster Carolina will find to succeed him. His son, Wes, is Georgia Tech's voice and also the play-by-play man for the Atlanta Falcons. He's solidly in place there and assuredly well compensated. Some have suggested that Marty Brennaman, the longtime Cincinnati Reds voice and a North Carolina alumnus, would be perfect for the job.
Brennaman is notoriously hard on the Reds, though, and I don't know how that would sell in Chapel Hill. Durham was, sure, a homer. He didn't criticize the coaching — I doubt he ever said anything bad about Matt Doherty over the air. But Durham would also point out sloppy play or long-running problems in the UNC offense. He gave the opposing side credit. When State's Terry Jordan completed 23 of 25 passes in an electrifying win over the Heels in 1992, Durham called the feat with just as much respect as awe, and would refer back to it any time an opposing quarterback got hot against Carolina.
Durham was not, like Vitale, like Patrick, like those guys on the TV nobody can stand, a cheerleader. He didn't gloss things over and he never gave false hope. When Carolina was six points into that inevitable second-half run, and Woody Durham said, "And here comes Carolina!" it certified the rally was on.
I met Durham once, in 2004, at the home of John Bunting, the former North Carolina football coach. How I ended up there was pure happenstance, a connection through a friend. This was barely hours after the end of the State-Carolina football game, possibly the greatest ever played between the two schools. State's T.A. McLendon appeared to tie the game on a last-second plunge; indeed, the points saying so on the Kenan Stadium scoreboard were taken off. On the final play of the goal-line stand, Carolina stuffed McLendon again for the victory.
A who's who of Carolina football alumni were at Bunting's house later. Everyone was socializing and exulting in the big win. In the kitchen, however, was Woody, watching a rebroadcast of the game he'd just called, on a small television set.
The volume was turned off.
Owen Good writes about sports video games for Kotaku. He is a native of Elkin, N.C., and a 1995 graduate of North Carolina State University.
Photograph by Geoff Wood, Our State Magazine.