Tar Heel basketball and football fans are used to getting their radio play-by-play straight up and by the book. It may be as exciting as the game itself, but one never wonders whether there’s going to be an off-color slip of the tongue. It’s been that way since Woody Durham ’63 took over the microphone in 1971.
But it wasn’t always. Those who recall Durham’s predecessor, “Mouth of the South” Bill Currie, always preface their recollections with a warning that most stories about the colorful commentator are best left out of print.
It was Currie who got Carolina’s sports radio network off the ground in the 1960s, drawing on his experience with the Tobacco Sports Network, which broadcast games all over the region, with loyalty to no particular school. “The Mouth” left the South to take a television job in Pittsburgh and more recently lived with his daughter in Yelm, Wash.
He died there on Feb. 11 of a brain hemorrhage. He had had a series of strokes in recent years, but his daughter said he was alert and active to the end, still following and loving Carolina basketball and football. He was 83.
“I listened to him every night,” Rick Brewer ’71, former UNC sports information director, said of Currie’s Tobacco network days as a color commentator for anchor Ray Reeve. “Tuesday they’d be at Clemson for a game with Duke. Wednesday at USC. Thursday at N.C. State. Saturday they’d be over here.
“He always admitted he didn’t know anything about the intricacies and strategies of the game. He just told what he saw. You heard about what the cheerleaders looked like or what was going on in the first row of the stands.
“Some of the things he said on the air, if there had been a five-second delay, you wouldn’t have heard it.”
During the 1968 ACC Tournament game in which Duke and State mostly stood around and played to a 12-10 final score, Currie said on the air that the action was about as exciting “as artificial insemination.”
He is said to have been in the habit of taking naps in a casket he kept in his office when he worked at WSOC in Charlotte.
“He was eclectic,” daughter Margaret Currie Granger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “He made sports interesting for people who didn’t follow sports. He was a nut. He was crazy. He was outrageous. He always was a character and was a character until the day he died. He didn’t care if people talked about him in a good way or a bad way, as long as they were talking and kept tuning in. He didn’t start out doing sports. He just happened to be good at it.”
Currie grew up in High Point, where he started writing sports for The High Point Enterprise as a high schooler for nothing but a byline. He rose to sports editor there and later worked at the Salisbury Post before getting into broadcasting.
Durham, who followed Currie’s career after succeeding him and visited him a time or two in Pittsburgh, said Currie broke with the Tobacco network in the early 1960s and went to WBOT in Wilson. It was there that he formed the Carolina network, Durham said.
On the air with color commentator Bob Lamey and engineer “Rowdy” Richard Raley, Currie competed with Reeve and the Tobacco network for a time, and gradually all the schools formed their own radio networks with dedicated announcers. Currie continued with the Carolina network when he took a TV job at WSOC. He also anchored broadcasts for the Carolina Cougars American Basketball Association franchise.
A tribute in the Post-Gazette read in part, “Dressed in sports jackets as loud as a Three Rivers Stadium crowd with ties as wide as the Ohio River, Bill Currie would pin a boutonniere into his lapel and, in a voice that dripped corn pone, mix Scripture with Shakespeare in sports commentaries that were folksy, rambling, irreverent and laced with color and the off-color, all at the same time.”
Durham said: “It took him a while to win over the Pittsburgh audience. He always, always wore the boutonniere. He said, ‘They may not remember me, but they’ll remember the flower.'”