BEHIND THE SCENES|
with WOODY DURHAM
Woody Durham has brought Carolina football and basketball games
into the homes of Carolina fans for 33 years. You’ve heard the play-by-play
on the radio, but now tag along with the “Voice of the Tar Heels” on
game night to see the work that goes into each broadcast.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Johnny Buck
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
"He takes his work so seriously. He doesn’t just show up at
the game and get his headphones; by the time he gets to
the arena he’s put hours upon hours of research into the
game. He has so much stuff; he’s so well organized it’s amazing. I’m
just honored to work with him.”
4:30 p.m. - Woody Durham walks into the vacant radio booth atop the
first level of the Dean E. Smith Center, places his brown leather bag
beside one of nine black office chairs and removes his knee-length
Durham, the "Voice of the Tar Heels" for Carolina football and
basketball games, has arrived precisely two and a half hours before
tip-off of the showdown with NC State, but he is not running ahead of
He is right on time.
Durham sits in the armless rolling chair and briefly takes in the JV
action before starting into his customary pre-game routine. Durham,
who’s been officially broadcasting for the Tar Heels since 1971, always
unpacks the same way.
The first item out of his leather bag is a small hand towel; he
folds and centers it over the portion of desktop that will become his
workspace for the evening.
“It only takes one Coke turned over, trying to wipe it up with
napkins and paper towels, to know what this is for,” he explains.
Next come two official media guides – one for each team. Durham
places NC State’s to the left and Carolina’s, as always, to the right. He
then puts the official ACC stats of each team on top of their respective
media guides. Next out is the handwritten, multi-colored scoring chart
that enables Durham to track in-game stats for easy reference during
Also out of the bag is the Carolina team/individual card. This
handwritten sheet shows the best and worst efforts for the team
during the year, as well as individual highs for both the season and
career of each varsity Tar Heel. Durham’s handmade specialties
are not completed, however, until he removes the game card. This
one shows each team’s record, the series record, each team’s
home and road record, their win-loss record when leading, trailing
or tied at the half and the next one or two games on the schedule
for each squad.
Although he has already laid out the products of four to six
hours of preparation, he is not quite finished.
Durham digs deep and pulls out a calculator, a multi-colored
ink pen and a sturdy plastic thermos.
“Instant apple cider,” exclaims the North Carolina native, “I
don’t always need it [for my voice], but it’s good to have around to
sip on during timeouts and commercial breaks, just in case.”
To say that Woody Durham believes in pre-game preparation
is an understatement. From the various charts covered in rainbows
of ink to the precautionary cider, Durham sticks to a general rule of
thumb: better to be over-prepared, than under-prepared.
“I’ve found that I only use about one-third of all the stats that
I record, but the problem is that I never know which third I’m going
“He’s one of those people that’s doing the exact thing that he was
put together to do. To me it seems like Ted Williams was put here
to play baseball; Louis Armstrong – for him to do anything other
than playing trumpet would seem somehow not right. I couldn’t
imagine Woody Durham wearing any other hat than that of a
- Mick Mixon
Born in Mebane, N.C. on Aug. 8, 1941, Durham has always had
the gift of public speaking.
In the seventh grade he entered his first of three yearly oratorical
contests sponsored by the Albemarle Optimist Club. It was here in
Albemarle, where his family moved when he was 10, that Durham’s
talent began to shine. Durham finished either second or third in the
statewide competition in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades.
“Training to be a public speaker is not the same as training to be
a broadcaster,” Durham noted, “but
some of it is very valuable.”
The competition itself proved
beneficial for Durham, because in
the summer of 1957 he was hired
at the local radio station as the
high school sports announcer. The
manager of the station had been a
judge in the oratorical contests.
"I think he’s been fantastic. His
enthusiasm, his love for Carolina, is something that is extremely
Perhaps it was in these
years that Durham first learned
the advantages of thorough
preparation; he certainly had a full
schedule and a large deal of responsibility for someone so young.
In the fall of his junior year of high school, Durham awoke early
and worked an hour at the station before going to school and then
headed to football practice. It was there on the gridiron, under the
auspices of NCHSAA Hall of Fame coach Tony Webb, that Durham
experienced the joy of playing for a well-disciplined team.
Webb’s squad was the pride of Albemarle. Although the
textile town had only about 12,000 inhabitants, the Bulldogs were
consistently one of the best teams in the state.
“I wasn’t very good or very big as a 165-pound pulling guard
in Webb’s single-wing attack, but I was able to make a contribution.
However, just being a part of such a successful program was the
highlight of my teenage years,” he noted.
After football season was over, Durham left school early each
day and returned to the radio station, where he hosted an afternoon
“DJ Show.” During the winter, he did tape-delayed broadcasts of the
high school basketball team; in the
spring and summer, he broadcast
Little League baseball games. He
also wrote a weekly Little League
column for the local paper, the
Stanley News and Press.
By his senior year he was the sports
editor of the school newspaper. Soon
it was time to graduate.
“I knew I wasn’t good enough
to play football at the next level,”
Durham said, “but I knew I was
going to Carolina, and I decided
to combine my broadcasting interest and my love for sports."
“I think my Dad understands and respects that he has been the lone
voice of football and basketball for over a generation of Tar Heel fans.
He doesn’t take it for granted and works as hard today as he did the
first year he had the job.”
4:38 - With the leather satchel unpacked, he begins to settle in.
(in his ninth season as the play-by-play announcer for Georgia Tech)
Unlike Carolina head coach Roy Williams, Durham’s blazer is
off hours before the game begins. He hangs it on the coat rack and
shuffles through his pile of notes once more. Durham is smartly clad:
a thin Carolina blue sweater (it got hot in the booth), grey business
slacks and black leather shoes. On his left wrist is a silver-banded
wristwatch with an interlocking “NC” on the gold faceplate.
As he neatly restacks his pile
of stats, light reflects off of a large
gold ring on his right hand: the
1993 National Championship ring.
Dean Smith considered Durham
so much a part of the Carolina
family that he ordered him a ring
along with the rest of the team. It
was a gracious gesture not lost
on the long-time Tar Heel fan.
“No, I don’t wear it to take out
the garbage,” he says.
4:55 - Phil Ford walks through the open door of the broadcast
booth. Considered by many the greatest Tar Heel basketball
player of all-time, this is Ford’s third year as an in-game analyst.
The two co-workers smile, shake hands and make small talk.
Every so often (as it had been for the past 15 minutes) someone
walks into the booth. Some are fans with security clearance that
just want the chance to say “Hi.” Others are members of the
press. Durham and Ford receive them all graciously and thank
them for stopping by.
5:15 - Down in front of the booth the student riser section is almost
full, while the rest of the lower level seating has fewer than a hundred
people watching the junior varsity game. Nevertheless, students in
the risers are riled up for the State game, quick to jump on an official,
booing loudly and hurling insults when he makes a questionable call
against the Tar Heels.
Durham understands the excitement emanating from the risers
below him. After all, he had
been a Carolina undergraduate
from 1959-1963. During those
years, he developed a love and
allegiance for the Tar Heels that
would one day help him land a job
with the Tar Heel Sports Network.
While at Carolina, Durham served
as sports director of WUNC-TV
for three years. His duties
included sports anchor on the
evening news program, as well
as doing play-by-play for home
football games. Back then, football games were taped on Saturdays
and rebroadcast on Sunday evenings.
His years at Carolina also fostered connections in the Carolina
family that would help him down the road.
“Woody took over for the network, doing the games and play-byplay,
when I was a student here. I think he’s been fantastic. His
enthusiasm, his love for Carolina, is something that is extremely
special. He’s a hard worker and he’s always so prepared.”
5:22 - Checking his watch, Durham puts his blazer back on, finds his
security escort and heads for the basement of the Smith Center. It
is time to interview Roy Williams for the radio pre-game show. Once
through the door, it quickly becomes apparent that the security guard
doesn't have much to worry about. Everyone seems thrilled to catch
a glimpse of the man behind the voice of Carolina athletics. As
soon as Durham steps out of the booth people are calling his name,
shaking his hand and patting his back as he walks past.
5:24 - Durham enters the main basketball office and heads down
a short hallway to Williams’ office. The door is open, but Durham
knocks politely anyway. The coach calls him in.
The office is spacious and plush. A large overstuffed leather couch
lines the near right wall; a big screen TV is to the left. In the back of
the office is a huge wooden desk; in the foreground, in front of the TV,
a leather loveseat and a high-backed armchair sit juxtaposed.
Wasting no time, Durham produces a digital recorder and
microphone and sits on the dark blue loveseat; the head coach of the
Tar Heels sits nearby in the armchair. After receiving the nod from
Williams, Durham starts the interview and delivers his unmistakable
baritone into the microphone. After a few questions, he hits “stop” on
the small recorder.
“Ready?” asks Durham.
“Starting the second segment in three, two, one….”
Durham records the final two segments for the pre-game show
like a well-run fast break. During the interview, he pushes the tempo
between questions, never fumbles a word, never drops the ball.
5:32 - He finishes with the interview in only eight minutes and heads
back up the stairs.
“I think in a time when TV is driving so much of college athletics, he
gave me a real sense of pride about radio. I still carry that with me.
People can watch on TV and turn down the sound, which is one of
the great compliments you can be paid. But when they bring a radio
to the game and listen, that’s pretty good.”
After college, Woody Durham worked for more than a decade
doing regional TV sports coverage. Then came the day he was invited
out to lunch by Homer Rice, Carolina’s athletics director at the time.
“He said, ‘I learned something interesting about you – you went
to Chapel Hill,’” Durham recalled.
“I said, ‘If you didn’t know that by now I must be doing a pretty
good job of being neutral.”
“If you listen to Woody Durham, he makes you think
you’re actually seeing the game. You can see the
game through the radio.”
Rice offered Durham the play-by-play duties that day, but before
he could accept, he needed to consult with a few friends.
“I asked for the support of Dean and Bill Dooley before pursuing
the job,” he said in a recent interview.
After receiving their blessings to pursue the position, Durham was
hired. His first broadcast as the “Voice of the Tar Heels” was on Sept. 11,
1971 at the University of Richmond – a 48-0 Carolina win. He has since
broadcast more than 1,460 Carolina football and basketball games.
“I’ve never seen a player come off the bench that Woody didn’t have
the information on.”
5:36 - Back in the booth, Mick Mixon has arrived. This is his 15th
season alongside Durham as the color analyst. Durham takes his
seat between Mixon and Ford. His stats, pens, lamp, calculator and
apple cider are all present and accounted for.
5:59 - Durham, Mixon and Ford, with headsets now covering their
ears, count red shirts in the rapidly filling lower level.
Mick: “I already see too much red in here.”
Woody (pointing): “I see one, two, three, …”
Phil: “There’s one sitting down over there, but he’s behind the
Woody: “There’s a group of them sitting to the right of the band.
I don’t know who gave them those tickets, but they should get in
trouble for it!” Laughter breaks out in the booth.
6:00 - The pre-game show goes on the air. Mixon highlights
what is to come in the next hour before going to the first
6:07 - During the second commercial break, Durham still cannot
believe how many Wolfpack fans have gotten lower level tickets. He
starts to ask Mick about it, but sound technician John Rose abruptly
ends the conversation by holding up his hand – the signal that they
are about to go back on the air.
6:17 - As is customary, Durham and Ford get out of their seats to
make room for the special pre-game guest. This time, it is newspaper
writer Al Featherston. While Mick interviews Featherston, Durham
goes over his notes and stats, again. Ford puts his mouth where his
money is by eating the frequently advertised Beefmaster Frank.
6:33 - Less than 30 minutes remain before tip-off, and the small booth
is now stuffy and crowded. All nine office chairs are filled (four of
them by guests from corporate sponsors) while several people are
standing. The Smith Center’s lower level is nearly full; the upper level
is well on its way.
6:41 - It is time to broadcast the interview with the opposing coach.
Mixon, live on the airwaves, asks a question into his headset
microphone; soundman Rose starts and then stops Herb Sendek’s
pre-recorded response, and then waits for Mixon to ask the next
question. The process is repeated several times.
6:50 - Three minutes remain on the scoreboard clock. The Heels
storm out of the locker room to a thundering ovation. In the booth,
the cheers of the crowd drown out everything. The noise is deafening.
Luckily, all three men have their headsets on. The broadcast
6:52 - The last section of the Williams interview plays. Durham does not
seem to notice, sitting quietly in his chair, looking over game notes.
6:54 - The horn sounds, as the last verse of the Carolina fight song
ends. The entire stadium fills with the words “Go to Hell State!”
followed by raucous cheering. Next the color guard marches onto the
court for the national anthem. Everyone in the crowded booth stands
up with hands clasped behind their backs or over their hearts.
7:00 - Tip off. Durham starts the play-by-play. His words chase the
ball around the court. At the top of the key, on the wing, in the low
post – Durham fluidly describes the flow of the game. As he bounces
with the ball from man to man, his words paint a detailed picture of
the game before him.
“He has a voice that sounds like an announcer’s. His pitch and his
inflection, his tone comes across as clear and strong. If you listen to
Woody Durham, he makes you think you’re actually seeing the game.
You can see the game through the radio.”
- Phil Ford
9:04 - Just minutes after the final buzzer sounds, marking a 68-66
Tar Heel win, Durham quickly leaves the booth and heads down the
lower level stairs, across the court and toward the players’ tunnel. As
he walks, people from all directions call to him. Security personnel
in yellow jackets, season ticket holders, and the janitorial staff
– everyone seems to know his name, and he knows many of theirs
Durham, forever painting
a picture with his words, begins
his commentary as soon as
Williams has made his way to
the speaker’s podium.
9:06 - Durham makes his way
through throngs of reporters
preparing for the post-game
press conference. He continues
forging through the crowd until he
is standing by the coach’s podium
at the front of the room. Donning
his wireless headphones, he
quietly checks in with Mixon (who
is still in the booth running the
post-game radio show) and then
waits for the head coach.
9:08 - Durham, forever painting
a picture with his words, begins
his commentary as soon as
Williams has made his way to
the speaker’s podium. “He sits
down, looks at his stat sheet as
he normally does, sets down his
water and here he is….”
9:16 - Williams’ press conference is over. Durham wraps it up, sends
the broadcast “back up to Mick," and makes a beeline for the players’
9:20 - Durham is crouched beside sophomore David Noel in a sea
of media: five reporters, two video cameras and three microphones
hover only inches away. Durham maintains his calm, comfortable
tone and conducts a brief live interview with Noel despite the hectic,
crowded scene. Durham again checks in with Mixon. When he
learns that another player interview is unnecessary, he begins the
march back to the radio booth.
9:34 - Having returned from the basement of the Smith Center, the
post-game radio show is now completed. Durham packs his things
as he chats with Mixon about the close win Carolina has claimed
over N.C. State.
But more than five hours after arriving, Durham is not ready
to go home, yet. Instead, he plans to record solo segments for
the upcoming highlight show with Roy Williams, which is still a
few days away.
He just wants to stay prepared.
Johnny Buck is the anchorman on UNC' s Sports Xtra television program.