CHAMPAIGN — John Bowler spent five seasons on the Des Moines Area Community College men’s basketball coaching staff.
None of those campaigns from 2014 through 2019 ever included a matchup between the Iowa-based Bears and Anthony Figueroa’s Parkland men’s basketball team.
Despite the programs making a combined three NJCAA Division II national tournament appearances in that span.
But that doesn’t mean Bowler wasn’t familiar with the Cobras.
“Parkland was one of those schools we knew, at any moment, we could see at the national tournament and would play a high-caliber game,” Bowler said. “I’ve always noticed them from afar and respected the program Coach Figueroa ran.”
It’s now Bowler’s job to maintain — and even enhance — the Cobras’ lofty expectations.
Parkland announced the hiring of Bowler on Tuesday announced as the Cobras’ next men’s basketball coach. He replaces Figueroa, the Centennial graduate who earlier this year departed Champaign after 10 seasons for the same position at Division III North Central College.
“I heard through the grapevine they were looking for somebody similar to the experience I had at DMACC,” Bowler told The News-Gazette. “I wanted a new challenge, and I was pretty excited about trying to be a head coach again.”
Bowler comes to Parkland from the Division I ranks. The 38-year-old spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach at Milwaukee.
His DMACC tenure included one season as the Bears’ top coach, and he previously served as a graduate assistant at Delta State University in Mississippi, as well.
“Really, really excited,” Bowler said when asked for his emotions associated with taking over the Cobras. “We’ve got a couple more pieces, maybe, to add. But from a foundation standpoint of what the men’s basketball program stands for and the expectations of competing at a high level, those are things that are very attractive about the situation.
“And that’s what I got into basketball for, is to compete.”
Bowler’s five seasons in Des Moines included the Bears producing three NJCAA All-Americans, 12 transfers to D-I programs and 11 transfers to D-II teams.
Not only does Bowler feel he benefits from his time with DMACC, but he also believes his stint at Milwaukee will make him a stronger asset for the Cobras.
“What I’ve been able to learn at the Division I level is just the constant daily approach to professionalism,” Bowler said. “Trying to do things at the highest level and win at the highest level.
“I’ve been somebody who’s worn so many hats (in basketball). ... In a smaller-campus atmosphere, Milwaukee provided me that at the Division I level. But getting back to Parkland and the JUCO level, I’m able to develop much closer relationships.”
That will be important right away for Bowler.
He takes over a team that won 23 games and placed seventh in the NJCAA D-II national tournament last season, but one that also graduated its top-three leading scorers in Josh Rivers, Savon Wykle and Champaign Central product A’Kieon Gill.
“We return (point guard) Sean Ealy, who is a double-figure scorer,” Bowler said. “We have some interesting transfers that are going to play well. ... I’d like to see if we can add a few more transfers to that mix.
“Our freshman class ... those guys are the foundation that can not only help us get back to the level we want to be at this year, but really push us forward in that second year.”
Bowler said he intends to retain all three of Figueroa’s previously employed assistant coaches — Coleco Buie, Anthony Woods and Noah Hunt.
“We’re cut from the same cloth,” Bowler said. “We’ve got some calls to make here and hopefully some Zoom meetings in the next few days. A lot of (the athletes) committed to this program and to Coach Figueroa and what he had built. That’s a lot of trust I need to build up ... and show them I have a vision moving forward.”
Bowler was a three-time Chicago Tribune All-Area forward out of Niles Notre Dame who went on to play at Eastern Michigan. He also played six seasons of professional basketball in Germany during the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Bowler offered a metaphor more apt for a football team than a basketball program when asked about how he’d like Parkland to look under his leadership.
“I want drink-from-the-hose guys. I don’t want water-bottle guys,” said the married father of three. “They grab a quick drink from the hose and start playing again. That’s how I see our team being recruited and who we look for.”
Bowler said he looks for his athletes to be “tougher than nails” and individuals who “want to win first” when filling out his roster.
“We’re going to play with some pace offensively. I like playing a little bit more fluid-motion style offense where the ball moves quite a bit,” Bowler said. “Defensively, that’s going to be the anchor of our program. ... Pick up people and have a good amount of ball pressure.
“We’re going to try to put together a fun product. And, to me, fun is winning.”
The Cobras achieved plenty of success under Figueroa’s watch, tallying a cumulative 221-79 record with three NJCAA D-II national tournament appearances during his tenure.
“This is kind of that take-over moment for me, where I get to implement a lot of things I learned (at Milwaukee),” Bowler said. “I’m lucky that Parkland offered me the opportunity to be a head coach again because that’s where I really wanted to be.”