Bruce Fowler is entering his sixth year as head coach at Furman and 28th season with a football program he has served as a player, assistant coach, and head coach.
In 2013 Fowler’s Paladins, a consensus preseason No. 7 pick in a pair of Southern Conference polls, engineered one of the most impressive mid-season turnarounds in collegiate football. Forced to contend with injuries to the squad’s top three quarterbacks over the first six games, Furman struggled to a 2-4 record at mid-season before hitting stride, winning its last five league games en route to capturing a share of the program’s 13th SoCon championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs — the Paladins’ first postseason appearance since 2006.
Triumphs over FBS transition foes Appalachian State (27-10) and Georgia Southern (16-14), and decisive wins over both Samford (35-17) and Wofford (27-14) — the last of which secured the league title for the Paladins — highlighted Furman’s second half surge.
In FCS playoff action the Paladins posted a first round road victory at South Carolina State (30-20) before falling to two-time defending national champion North Dakota State in the quarterfinals in Fargo, N.D.
Final rankings in both the FCS Coaches (21) and Sports Network (22) final polls confirmed Furman’s advance from total mid-season obscurity to national prominence at season’s end and also sent a signal to the SoCon that Paladin football was ready to reassume its mantle as a league power.
Fueling Furman’s resurgence were players such as consensus All-America and SoCon Jacobs Blocking Award winning offensive tackle Dakota Dozier, a fourth round selection by the New York Jets in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Fowler’s influence was noted almost immediately in 2011, in his first season as head coach, when Furman demonstrated a return to physical play and renewed confidence evidenced in the Paladins’ 26-21 triumph over FCS fifth-ranked Wofford and 20-10 win against third-ranked Appalachian State that halted a frustrating six-game series losing skid to the Mountaineers.
That early success, coupled with Furman’s renewed commitment to Paladin football through the construction of the Pearce-Horton Football Complex, the program’s new 44,000-square foot operational home at Paladin Stadium, provided a major spark in recruiting that has helped yield an impressive influx of talent in each of the last four seasons.
That talent helped Furman notch a 16-15 win last year over UCF -- the Paladins' first over an FBS foe since 1999, when Fowler served as defensive coordinator.
Academic excellence, for decades a hallmark of Paladin football, has continued as a signal priority under Fowler, whose program registered three straight Top 10 rankings in the NCAA Division 1 Graduation Success Rate (GSR) results from 2011-13. Furman’s 95 percent GSR was tied with Harvard and Penn of the Ivy League for 10th among the 245 NCAA Division 1 football playing institutions that together comprise FBS and FCS.
A Cincinnati, Ohio, native who served as an assistant coach on the Paladin staff for 18 years before spending nine seasons in the capacities of defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Vanderbilt University, Fowler is the 22nd head coach in the history of Furman football, which dates from 1889.
While at Vanderbilt, Fowler directed defenses that laid the groundwork for success the program had not enjoyed in a quarter century. In 2008 Vanderbilt, aided by a Commodore defense that ranked 15th nationally in pass defense, 21st in scoring defense, and 30th in total defense, opened the campaign with a five-game winning streak, including a September victory over South Carolina and a 14-13 thriller over Auburn with ESPN’s popular College GameDay show broadcasting from the Nashville campus. After the Auburn win, the Commodores were ranked No. 13 by the Associated Press, its highest ranking in more than 50 years. Vanderbilt went on to post its first winning season since 1982, and only its the fourth winning season since 1959, by going 7-6 and recording a 16-14 triumph over Boston College in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl. It marked the first bowl victory by a Commodore squad since the 1955 Gator Bowl.
Other team highlights during Fowler’s tenure at Vanderbilt included a 28-24 triumph over Tennessee in 2005, which snapped a 23-game losing skid to the Volunteers and marked the Commodores’ first victory in Knoxville since 1975; the school’s first victory over a ranked road foe, a 24-22 decision over No. 16 Georgia in 2006; and a 17-6 win at No. 6 South Carolina in 2007 — the first triumph over a Top 10-ranked foe in 33 years and program’s highest ranked victim since 1937.
In terms of player development, five former Commodore defenders during the Fowler tenure — Myron Lewis, D.J. Moore, Jonathan Goff, Jovan Haye and Hunter Hillenmeyer — were selected in the National Football League (NFL) Draft, and nine different Vanderbilt defenders earned All-Southeastern Conference honors during Fowler’s tenure.
In addition to the improvement in on-the-field competitiveness, Vanderbilt’s football program was recognized nationally by the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) as the recipient of the organization’s FBS 2008 Academic Achievement Award for highest graduation rate (95 percent) for freshmen entering in 2001.
Fowler paved the way for his move to Vanderbilt and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) with a 16-year assistant coaching tenure at Furman that helped produce one of the greatest eras of football achievement in school history, including a 146-70-3 record (.674), 1988 NCAA I-AA national championship, eight Southern Conference (SoCon) championships, and nine playoff appearances.
He began his collegiate coaching career in 1984 as a graduate assistant under Dick Sheridan and was on staff in the same capacity the following year when Furman went 12-2, defeated N.C. State (42-20) for a second consecutive season, won the SoCon championship, and finished as national runner-up.
In 1986 he was promoted to full-time as receivers coach under new head coach Jimmy Satterfield. In that role he oversaw the development of six All-SoCon performers, including wide receiver Donald Lipscomb, who played a pivotal role in the Paladins going 13-2 and winning the 1988 NCAA I-AA championship, as well as three straight SoCon titles (1988-89-90).
In 1993 he made the switch to defense, taking over the Paladin secondary. In five seasons in that capacity Fowler directed the fortunes of a half dozen all-conference performers, including SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and All-America free safety John Keith, a fourth round selection by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2000 NFL Draft.
Furman head coach Bobby Johnson promoted Fowler to defensive coordinator and put him charge of the Paladin linebackers in 1999 — a move that helped pave the way for a brilliant three-year run that netted a 30-9 record, including a 28-3 victory over North Carolina in 1999, SoCon championships in 1999 & 2001, three playoff appearances, and 12-3, national runner-up finish in ‘01.
In both 2000 & ‘01 linebacker Will Bouton, considered one of the finest defenders in Furman history, garnered both SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors. In addition, in 2001 NCAA I-AA semifinal round playoff action Fowler’s Paladin defense slammed the door on Georgia Southern’s triple option attack in a 24-17 victory over the Eagles in Statesboro, snapping the Eagles’ NCAA record 39-game home winning streak and handing GSU its first ever home playoff game defeat.
He departed Furman following the 2001 season, accepting the defensive coordinator position at Vanderbilt under Johnson.
Fowler earned all-conference honors as a defensive back at Cincinnati’s Mariemont High School before joining the Paladin program as a walk-on in 1977 under Art Baker. He lettered two years as a cornerback and was a member of Furman’s first SoCon championship team in 1978 coached by Dick Sheridan. He started as a junior, racking up 35 tackles and a team leading three interceptions, and as a senior in 1980 helped Furman notch its second league crown.
He graduated in 1981 with a degree in physical education and began his coaching career as an assistant at nearby Wren (S.C.) High School, remaining there for three years before returning to Furman in 1984 as a graduate assistant. He later earned an M.A. in education from the university.
Fowler and his wife, Lindy ‘83, a native of Ocala, Fla., have a son, Jake, a senior at Furman, and a daughter, Maddie, a sophomore at Furman.