CHARLESTON — New Eastern Illinois defensive coordinator Cary Fowler is pretty familiar with what EIU Kim Dameron runs for a defense and his expectation from it. That's because Fowler played in that same system when he was a member of the Murray State football team when Dameron was the defensive coordinator.
Fowler played for Dameron for two seasons and after he graduated, he joined Murray State as a position coach in 1995, which was Dameron's last season as the defensive coordinator for the Racers before he went to the University of Cincinnati.
Now after more than 20 years, Fowler and Dameron are on the same sidelines again.
"It feels great. I played in this league and had a very successful run with Murray State and with Dameron being my coach," Fowler said. "You have friends in this business and you have mentors. Not only was he my position coach, but I GA'd for him, I worked for him, he's been like a father to me. Getting back with a guy that molded your life at a young age is really good."
Dameron said the two coaches are "pretty close."
"We've known each other for a long, long time," Dameron said. "He's been very successful in D-II and was a successful head coach in D-II. So when he was available, there wasn't much thought. I've just know him so well and know what he's about and he's what I believe in on defense. We aren't going to be super complicated, but we are going to run to the football and be physical."
The defensive coordinator position came open when Michael Hodges took a job in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints, which is coached by former EIU quarterback Sean Payton.
Fowler is even happier he is at a Division I university that takes pride in its football program.
"I know this league well. I haven't been in it a long time, but I know this league and I know the importance of football at Eastern Illinois," Fowler said. "When I had the chance to come back to a school and an administration where football is very important, it was an opportunity I wanted to jump on."
Fowler joins EIU after a one-year stint at NCAA D-III Howard Payne University as the defensive coordinator. Fowler spent a number of years in the D-II in the Lone Star Conference. He spent seven seasons at Midwestern State and helped lead them to the playoffs in 2004 and 2006. In 2005, he was named the D-II Assistant Coach of the Year.
Fowler joined Tarleton State in 2008 as the defensive coordinator and helped lead them to the second round of the D-II playoffs in 2009. By 2010, Fowler was named the head coach of Tarleton State in 2010. In 2013, Tarleton State to a 7-3 record and was the co-champions of the Lone Star Conference.
After the 2015 season, Fowler resigned with a 30-32 record, but he resigned because of the personal toll the job took on him. Just four days into his tenure as the head coach at Tarleton State, defensively lineman Zach Shaver passed away. There were five more deaths in the football program during Fowler's tenure along with two tragic injuries. A Fox Sports story from 2015 by Reid Forgrave outlines each death or injury and only Shaver's death happened because of a football related injury.
The school's longtime play-by-play announcer Dr. Ron Newsome committed suicide, offensive lineman Cody Stephens died because of sudden cardiac arrest, starting safety Chance Wallace was in a snowboarding accident and was left paralyzed from the neck down, the longtime secretary Cheryl Spellmeier died in a car accident, offensive lineman Camron Owens passed away due to an undiagnosed hereditary heart problem, defensive back Christian Champine was killed in a car accident and teammate Malik Brown was in the car and severely injured.
It was a toll very few, if any coach, can deal with.
"We are a very successful run and I resigned because I had major tragedies that happened in my program," Fowler said. "I needed to step away and deal with the mourning. When you have an X amount of players who pass away in a period, everyone needs a fresh start. I got to volunteer at a place where people have played for me and known me for a long time. I got to spend time with my family. It was a good, refreshing period for me."
Now Fowler is closer to home. Fowler has family in Kentucky. It's now a 3 1/2 to 4 hour drive back home from Charleston compared to a 14-hour drive from Texas.
After all Fowler went through the past few years, it was good for him to land at EIU with his mentor. Plus he doesn't really have to switch anything up since he runs the same system Dameron taught him at Murray State.
"After he left (Murray State), (MSU head coach) Huston Nutt mandated we run the same defense that Dameron put in," Fowler said. "Then I became a coordinator in Texas and head coach and I've ran the same system. Some of the things he sees are what he's taught me. My philosophy is what he taught me and we've carried it on. It's easy when the philosophies are the same."
Fowler takes over a defense that was fourth in the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring defense and third in total defense. The Panthers graduated only four of its 11 starters from last season's final starting unit against Eastern Kentucky, so Fowler thinks EIU's defense has a chance to be better this upcoming season.
"If we learn to play hard, if we learn to sprint and get lined up after every play and come together and we learn that effort equals production ... we've got a chance," Fowler said. "I am a very confident person and try to outwork our opponents and that's what I am trying to teach them. We have a good foundation and we are trying to add the next step because we are young in some spots.
"I don't want to say top 10, I want to be the top in the nation. They have to get that mentality that it's not that something bad happens, just be blessed to play another play. When you've had kids that have passed away and one that is paralyzed, it means a lot more to me than what they understand. I am trying to instill that in them."