BROOKLYN, N.Y. — As the ACC celebrates its present and future by holding its highest profile event in the biggest city in the world, the conference lost another piece of its more humble, Southern roots Wednesday with the death of Woody Durham.
The former North Carolina radio announcer, who for 40 years was the beloved “Voice of the Tar Heels,” died peacefully overnight at the age of 76.
In 2016, Durham announced that he was suffering from Primary Progressive Aphasia, a rare brain disorder that took away his ability to speak, silencing the voice that had been the soundtrack for so many UNC fans’ lives.
His death was caused by complications of the disease.
“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,” UNC coach and long-time friend Roy Williams said in a statement. His Tar Heels are scheduled to play their ACC tournament opener tonight at 9:30 p.m. against Syracuse at Barclays Center.
“He created so many lasting memories for Carolina fans during this time of year,” Williams continued. “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’s son Wes, who followed his father’s footsteps into broadcasting, worked Tuesday’s opening round tournament games for the ACC Network. He plans to remain in Brooklyn and call his second round games as scheduled today.
“I’d like to think the best way I can honor him is by working an event he loved to work so much,” the younger Durham said, following his father’s famous advice of “Go where you go and do what you do” whenever the Tar Heels were in a tight spot.
A 1963 graduate of UNC, Durham called more than 1,800 Tar Heels football and men’s basketball games. His Hall of Fame career spans from the era of Dean Smith, Phil Ford and Michael Jordan to more recent stars Antawn Jamison and Tyler Hansbrough in basketball and from the tenures of Bill Dooley to Butch Davis in football.
A native of Albemarle, Durham was a high school classmate of Bob Harris, who went on to spend four decades as the play-by-play voice of the rival Duke Blue Devils.
Among Durham’s honors are 13 NC Sportscaster of the Year awards, the distinguished service medal from the UNC alumni association, the Skeeter Francis Award for special service to the ACC and induction into the NC Sports Hall of Fame. In 2015, Durham received the Curt Gowdy Award for contributions to basketball from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. He is scheduled to be inducted into the National Sports Media Association’s Hall of Fame this summer.
Although he lost his ability to speak, he continued to make public appearances at UNC games and charity events raising money to fight his disease. He attended his final Smith Center game on Jan. 16 against Clemson, the day his latest Hall of Fame election was announced.
“While learning of this diagnosis was a bit of a shock for (wife) Jean and me, and yes, quite an ironic one at that,” he wrote in an open letter to Tar Heels fans in 2016, “it also brought a sense of relief to us in terms of understanding what was happening to me and how best to deal with it.”
The ACC announced Wednesday that it plans to honor Durham with its Bob Bradley Courage Award before the Tar Heels’ game against Syracuse.
“Our family is grateful for the incredible support my dad and our family received throughout his illness,” Wes Durham said. “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.”
One of those fans is Christy Walsh-Smith, a Greensboro native who came from her current home Virginia to watch the Tar Heels at Barclays Center this week.
“Woody Durham meant the world to me,” said the lifelong UNC fan, whose husband’s name is actually Dean Smith. “My father just passed away from dementia and I can remember my father, who was a Carolina graduate, sitting in his car in the driveway to listen to Woody Durham call games on the radio because we couldn’t get it on television. Woody Durham’s passing is a huge loss, not only to Carolina fans, but to the world at large.”
Here is a sampling of what people are saying about the life and death of UNC legend Woody Durham:
ACC commissioner John Swofford
“Woody was synonymous with Carolina Athletics for decades and his voice was gospel to generations of Tar Heels who trusted his every word. I was struck by how diligently Woody prepared for his broadcast of games. When game time arrived, he made it look and sound so easy because he had a voice that resonated just so, but much of it was because he worked incredibly hard at it. As they say ‘the great ones make it look easy’. Woody was one of the great ones. He was just as good a person as he was a broadcaster.”
“‘Rocky Mount junior running one-hander is good.’ … When I think of Woody Durham, the Voice of the Tar Heels, so many memories flash though my mind. For UNC fans of football and basketball, it’s both the knowledge of the game and the passion in Woody’s voice that set him apart. For those of us who knew Woody, we knew he put in as much preparation for each game as did the players and coaches. That is dedication you don’t see any more.
“The proud tradition that has always been UNC Athletics has been made stronger over the years because of Woody. He was there when we celebrated national championships, bowl victories and disappointing losses. Coaches and players have come and gone, but that solid Carolina voice was always there to reassure the Tar Heel family.”
“Woody loved the Tar Heels and players, coaches and fans of all ages loved him right back. We should all ‘go where we go and do what we do’ and say a prayer for Woody and his family. There will never be another quite like him.”
Current Tar Heels announcer Jones Angell
“I am filled with sadness at the loss of a mentor, friend and Carolina icon. Woody meant so much to me personally and professionally and I feel honored to have worked with him and learned from him. We try to reach the standard of excellence Woody set for 40 years through his passion and professionalism on every broadcast on the Tar Heel Sports Network. We will continue that moving forward.”
NC State announcer Gary Hahn