Fire Up

Chris Fowler has propelled Central Michigan to its best start in 45 years.

by January 15, 2015

After a convincing 80-67 win over Northwestern in mid-December, the first dub for Central Michigan over a Big Ten opponent since 2007, third-year Chippewas coach Keno Davis portioned out credit for the performance. Rightly so. Then, Davis zeroed in upon one player in particular.

“How did we not get rattled [against Northwestern]? I’ve got to give the credit to Chris Fowler,” Davis told CMU’s official athletics website.

Let’s save the ESPN college football analyst-related jokes for later. The Fowler who’s run point with aplomb in Mount Pleasant since his freshman season is a 6-1, 191-pound dynamo who has propelled CMU to its best start in some 45 years. As of January 15, the Chippewas were 12-2. They’d already surpassed their win total from a season ago.

Fowler has been a team captain since his freshman season, which coincided with Davis’s first year on the job. Dude set the program record for assists by a freshman, with 176. Did he feel pressure, being counted upon to lead at such an early stage? Not really. Fowler’s taken on that yoke since he started playing. It’s something his dad instilled in him, continued by the coaches who helped hone his game.

So, yes, adversity. When you’ve endured what Fowler has endured, it’s hard to get rattled.

“I’ve had six surgeries,” Fowler says, but only when pressed. The last of them came when he was 17, an operation that righted an anterior cruciate ligament that had hounded him since he was 10. Surgery, rehab, repeat.

But there’s no set protocol for the mental aspect of that process, especially when you’ve gone under the knife that many times before you’ve reached voting age. Fowler learned to banish despair, that ever-loitering fiend. Melding the mental and physical recuperation the point that, when you’re back on the court and you make that cut, planting your knee at dizzying speed, it’s with full confidence.

Fowler is uncanny in many ways (he’s a theater major), but resilience might be the defining characteristic.

Like any coach who’s been in the biz, Davis is accustomed to the noise that inevitably accompanies a prospective recruit. He’s always in the gym. He leads his team. He takes care of his academics. Sales, sales, sales. How often does it turn out to be true?

But when Fowler came on board to Davis’ project, it all turned out true. “But with Chris, those accolades didn’t come close to telling the whole story,” Davis says. “He stepped up as a freshman. He took control of putting guys in the right position, getting them in the gym and making sure they were mentally focused and prepared for each game. It’s unique to have that in a freshman.”

Fowler had spent the 2011-12 season at IMG Academy, a private institute in Bradenton, FL. Away from home, meeting new people, becoming part of a new team. He made sure he emerged from the experience a better leader.

Jeff Smith, who was then an assistant at UC Riverside, scouted Fowler at IMG and told him he liked him as a player. Problem was, Riverside didn’t need a point guard. Nevertheless, Smith called around and let coaches know that if they needed a floor general, they’d do well not to miss Fowler. None of those coaches came calling.

Davis took the CMU job on April 3, 2012, a day after that season’s NCAA Tournament wrapped. Fifteen days later, he’d hired Smith as an assistant. The coaching staff looked at their threadbare roster for the upcoming season. There were three players returning, all of whom would be reserves. They needed a point guard. Better yet, they needed a lightning rod.

Well, Smith said, there’s this kid down in Florida…Davis hustled down and met with Fowler. Within a month, Fowler had visited CMU’s campus and signed on for the 2012-13 season.

“We were really fortunate to be able to recruit him,” Davis says. “We sold him on how we were going to build the program, the type of character and the style of play we’d have. How we’d need a point guard to handle the ball and lead the team through growing pains.”

Those first two seasons, with a cumulative win percentage of .328, were taxing. But thanks to terrific recruiting—this season, the Chippewas go 10 deep, sometimes 11—things are beginning to bloom. “The core group has played some 60 games together now,” Fowler says. “We know how to keep our composure in tough situations and grind out wins.”

At 13.4 points per game, Fowler is the Chippewas’ leading scorer, an amount which comprises just 16.1 percent of the team’s total output. Ergo, balance—along with a testament to CMU’s margin of victory, which to this point has been considerable. Perhaps his 6.0 assists are more revealing of Fowler’s impact.

Davis believes that Fowler’s numbers will increase as the conference season wears on. In college basketball, the inverse is often the case. “At the end of the year, he’ll be one of the better scorers in our league (the Mid-American Conference) as well as in assists,” Davis says.

A day after Davis spoke to SLAM, Central Michigan took down Toledo 65-62. Huge upset. Testament to a program’s growth. Four days later, they were smacked 83-65 by Ball State. The growing pains of a program on the rise. Heave and ho, ebb and flow. Don’t think Fowler and Co. will be deterred by that latest setback.

Think of those surgeries. Think of the first two seasons at CMU. Dude learned a long time ago it’s best to get better, not bitter. It’s what allows his head coach to say:

“He’s one of the best leaders anywhere in the country.”

Coming from Keno Davis, that ain’t just noise.