By Ray Maloney
Journal Sports Editor
FARGO, N.D. — Denis Isrow, the longtime athletic trainer at North Dakota State University, and a pioneer of athletic training in North Dakota and across the nation, died on Sunday in Fargo after a long battle with cancer. He was 78.
"We will miss Izzy a great deal, said NDSU director of athletics Gene Taylor. “He had such an impact on our programs in so many ways and he touched the lives of countless individuals that will always remember him with fondness,".
“There will always be just one Izzy,” said Lynn Dorn, the women’s athletics director at the school.
Dorn said the legacy Isrow leaves behind cannot be measured by the numerous honors and awards that came the way of the Detroit, Mich. native and former Marine.
“I think for a man like Izzy, the thing is that everyone who came in contact with him will each have a personal story about the impact he had on them as students, as athletes and as successful people,” Dorn added.
Said NDSU director of sports medicine Scott Woken,"NDSU has lost one of its all-time greats. When you think of Izzy, you think of 'Bison Pride' and 'Once a Bison always a Bison.
“Those are terms that still stand today and they will live on forever,” Woken added. “He was a great, great person that will be remembered forever.
"I spent most of (Sunday) on the telephone with former athletes," said Bucky Maughan, who spent 45 years as the wrestling coach at NDSU before retiring following the 2010-11 season and was a longtime friend of Isrow's. "They all talked about how much they will remember Izzy for all the help he provided in their careers in school and how he continued to connect with them long after they graduated.
“They can say everybody did this, but there was one guy who was there for it all,” said Maughan. “He helped everybody become successful in their sports. He’s more special than anybody or any coach who got headlines. The guy making it all work was Izzy.”
Amy Ruley, who took over the women’s basketball program at NDSU in 1979 on her way to establishing the Bison program as a national power, said she was never intimidated by Isrow.
“He certainly ran things with a military style,” Ruley said. “But he was always looking out for what was best for NDSU and its student athletes.
“His legacy is going to be the time and commitment he put into everything he did at NDSU and for NDSU. He will also be remembered for the number of students he mentored.”
Former NDSU football coach Rocky Hager is one of the legion of people Isrow left his mark on.
Page 2 of 3 - “His impact on my life is equal to that of both of my grandfathers,” said Hager, who began at the school as a graduate assistant in 1979 before becoming the defensive coordinator and eventually the head coach of the Bison. “He was always mentoring. He was not afraid to tell you when you had done something wrong and he was the first person there to give you a pat on the back.
“He had this incredible knack of taking you behind closed doors when you had a problem,” Hager added. “He would question you and he would guide you into the correct decision. It was never his decision, he just had a way of making you make the decision, but he was always willing to lend an ear.”
Hager, who remains the winningest football coach in school history, said he visited Isrow in recent months.
“Our last conversation was a good one,” he recalled. “He knew he was slipping, but he was at peace with that."
Said Hager, “In my opinion, we had Mama Bison,” in reference to longtime Bison supporter Dorothy Eberhardt, who was in charge of the Residence Dining Center on campus that fed student athletes, “in Izzy, we had Papa Bison.”
Hager, who grew up as a fan of the Bison from his early days in Sherwood, N.D. before playing football at Minot State, continued his praise of the iconic Isrow.
“The Bison tradition began with (Isrow) and that will never change,” he said.
Pati Rolf, a former standout in volleyball at the school, talked of Isrow’s impact on her as a student and as an athlete.
“The thing I remember most is how genuine and funny he was,” said Rolf, who has enjoyed a successful career as a volleyball coach at several schools since her graduation. “He had so much compassion and so much humor. Whenever I was back in (Fargo) I always made a point to visit him and he was one who would always have time for fomer student athletes.
“Some people change their colors,” said Rolf, who has coached at Minnesota-Duluth, Marquette and East Carolina during her illustrious career, “with Izzy, his colors will always be green and gold.”
Isrow was known for being tough when he wanted to be. When an athlete was in his training room, Maughan said, it was either follow his rules or leave.
“And then he could be the kindest, easy-going guy that would do anything for anybody,” Maughan said.
Maughan began his career at NDSU in 1964, one year after Isrow arrived from Adams State (Colo.) as an assistant football coach and trainer.
"We started when there was nothing here," Maughan said. "What people remember most about Izzy was how he ran the training room like a military base. But, what few people really saw were the things he did behind the scenes. He got the physical education program going and was a big part of the planning for what is now the Bison Sports Arena.”
Page 3 of 3 - Isrow came to NDSU from Adams State (Colo.) in 1963 with head football coach Darrell Mudra, a program that Mudra started on its way to nine national championships. Isrow began the NDSU athletic training program in 1968.
“He was one of the best guys you could get to know,” said Cory Schuh, one of hundreds of students to graduate from the athletic training progam started by Isrow more than 40 years ago.
“The thing I always found remarkable was that even long after I graduated, he always remembered me,” added Schuh, who now works at Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake and serves as a trainer for the local athletic teams at Devils Lake High School and Lake Region State College.
“He did so many little things that were so important to the success of NDSU athletics and I always enjoyed the opportunities I had to pick his brain.”
He never gave up on anybody,” Woken said. “He was a driven man that instilled that in all of us. He got things out of people that people thought they never had.”
Isrow retired from teaching in 2002 after working as Associate Division Director of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics (1981) and as a professor in the College of Human Development and Education, but he never left the university. He was named Professor Emeritus serving as HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) coordinator at NDSU, and worked with Bison student-athletes through the Athletic Academic Program. He got his master’s degree from NDSU in 1965 and his doctorate from the University of Utah in 1975.
Last year, the training facility at the Fargodome was renamed the Dr. Denis “Izzy” Isrow Bison Athletic Training Room.
He was elected to the North Central Conference Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Bison Hall of Fame in 1990 and the National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame in 1995.