CHAPEL HILL — For many University of North Carolina men’s basketball and football fans, the voice of longtime radio announcer Woody Durham still echo in their minds — from the jubilation at the final seconds of the four national championships the men won with Durham on the microphone, to the moments of worry when he would tell listeners to “go where you go and do what you do.”
UNC and ACC basketball fans alike are mourning the loss of the 76-year-old, who died at his Chapel Hill home early Wednesday
“Everybody knew it was coming. I saw him a few weeks ago at one of the ballgames and I tried to talk to him, but I ended up talking to his wife,” said John Rancke, a Lumberton native and lifelong UNC fan. “He had his good days and bad days. Everybody hoped that he would get a banner up in the Smith Center before he passed, though.”
Rancke was a manager for the men’s basketball team from 1971 to 1975 and was there when during Durham’s early years on the airwaves.
“We were on road trips together, and spent Christmas in Madrid together and he would come to practice a lot,” Rancke said. “Any time we were on the road he would travel with us so I got to know him quite well.”
Durham’s attention to detail and work ethic were something Rancke still remembers, along with his down-to-earth demeanor.
“He was friendly, always busy and very driven,” he said. “His wife, Jean, stayed out of the limelight. Woody was as well-prepared as anyone I have ever seen before a broadcast. It was amazing the details he had in front of him before every ballgame.
“I have respected him immensely. He was a professional and he did not take shortcuts.”
Wes Durham, who like his father is a play-by-play announcer, said he died from complications of a neurocognitive disorder that robbed him of that famous voice, preventing him from public speaking.
Durham called UNC games from 1971 through 2011. He worked more than 1,800 games and that voice is attached to some of UNC’s most unforgettable victories, including the 1982 and 1993 NCAA basketball championships under Dean Smith as well as the 2005 and 2009 titles under Roy Williams.
“Just a great guy. He had to be, or Coach Smith wouldn’t have let him continue,” Rancke said.
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford, the former athletic director at UNC, called Durham’s voice the“gospel to generations of Tar Heels who trusted his every word.” Williams called it “a very sad day for everyone who loves the University of North Carolina.”
“It’s ironic that Woody would pass away at the start of the postseason in college basketball because this was such a joyous time for him,” Williams said. “He created so many lasting memories for Carolina fans during this time of year. It’s equally ironic that he dealt with a disorder for the final years of his life that robbed him of his ability to communicate as effectively as he did in perfecting his craft.”
Durham called 23 bowl games and 13 Final Fours in his career. He also spoke during the public memorial following Smith’s death in February 2015.
Durham said in an open letter to fans in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, which affects language expression.
“Our family is grateful for the incredible support my dad and our family received throughout his illness,” said Wes Durham, a broadcaster who works ACC games. “From the medical teams to the general public, it’s been amazing. We hold to and will always cherish the wonderful memories he left for our family and Carolina fans throughout the world.”
Rancke said that he finds it fitting that Wes was the play-by-play announcer for the ACC Network’s broadcast for the Tar Heels’ game on Wednesday in the ACC tournament, but one thing felt out of place for the former manager and lifelong Carolina fan.
“It would’ve been so much nicer if the ACC tournament was in Greensboro when it happened,” he said.
With games becoming televised more and more, Rancke listening to the radio less frequently than he did growing up or when he graduated college. On Saturday while driving home from his sister’s house, he caught himself depending on the radio for the second half of UNC’s game with Duke.
“I started home and I thought to myself, ‘I miss this.’ So I found the broadcast on the radio, with (current UNC radio announcer) Jones (Angell), and there is just something about a radio announcer doing a ballgame that I miss,” he said. “I never listened to Woody when it was on TV because I couldn’t get the sound to jive, but growing up, they weren’t on TV and that’s what I remember. He was great, good God, he was great.”
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym. The Associated Press contributed to this report.