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Kevin Schnepf, Published December 11 2010

Schnepf: Wife's cancer battle becomes focus of Inniger's life

It was the morning after a Bison-Sioux men’s basketball game. Worn out and relieved, Erv Inniger opened the sports section that proclaimed his Bison the winner.

It also displayed a photograph showing an angry, intense Inniger.

“Can you believe this photo?” Inniger said to his wife, Linda.

“That’s just the way you’ve been looking lately,” Linda calmly answered.

Such serenity is not usually associated with the Bison-Sioux rivalry. From 1904 to 2004, it escalated to an intensity that was at times hard to control by coaches, players and fans – par for the course for your century-long rivalries.

Inniger endured 33 games against the Sioux during his 14 seasons as North Dakota State’s head coach. Through it all, his wife, Linda, was there.

“She kept things in perspective,” Erv said.

Tonight in the Fargodome, where the rivalry will be renewed, Inniger will be on the court once again – being honored before tipoff for his 33 years of service to NDSU.

You can bet Inniger will have a completely different perspective on things when nearly 10,000 fans are sure to give him a rousing tribute.

In some ways, Inniger is thankful he’s no longer the head coach dealing with the pressures of a Bison-Sioux game. But in many ways, he is especially thankful that his wife, Linda, is battling her bout with cancer with as much determination as one of Erv’s teams playing the Sioux.

“The prognosis is unbelievable,” Erv said of his wife, who has been undergoing chemotherapy treatments since August to treat the non-hodgkins lymphoma stage 4 cancer she was diagnosed with this summer.

“It’s in remission. But she still has to deal with the treatments.”

It makes dealing with Bison-Sioux week like a piece of cake. But it was anything but from 1978 to 1992, when Inniger became NDSU’s all-time winningest men’s basketball coach with a 244-150 record.

Hired in September, Inniger found himself preparing for his first Bison-Sioux game less than four months later. On Jan. 13, 1978, Inniger’s Bison lost to the Sioux 83-80 before a packed Bison Sports Arena.

“Until you get in the game, you don’t know the intensity of the rivalry,” Inniger said.

It was the first of 25 rivalry games in which Inniger went head-to-head with UND head coach Dave Gunther. Proving how tough the rivalry was, Inniger had a 9-16 record against Gunther.

“He was one of the greatest coaches I ever coached against,” Inniger said of Gunther, who built a 332-177 record from 1970 to 1988 at UND. “I consider him a friend and I suppose people don’t want to hear me saying that. He had his teams play so fundamentally sound, you knew that you would always have to play your best.”

Even after he retired from coaching, Erv’s best was yet to come. During the last 18 years as a senior associate athletic director, Inniger has raised scholarship endowments from $356,000 to more than $10.5 million.

Inniger, who played college basketball at Indiana and professionally in the ABA, plans to retire Jan. 18. A bit more relaxed than he was as a coach, he will soak in all the memories tonight before the rivalry officially resumes – a rivalry that was just as intense for his wife, Linda.

“It really was,” Erv said. “You’ve got to have a supportive wife. And Linda was that and more.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549 or at kschnepf@forumcomm.com