Ken French hasn’t coached his first game at Oakland City University — hadn’t even moved into a house in his new surroundings until recently — yet already his work has produced tangible results for the men’s program at the NAIA school.
“We haven’t had a JV team in the past here, but we started a JV program,” said French. “We brought in 30 kids in 3½ months. It’s not easy trying to move through the recruiting process. … We spent two months in a two-bedroom suite just recruiting and getting after it.” French is moved into more permanent surroundings now. “My wife’s even already got a job,” he notes. The veteran NAIA coach now can settle in as he begins his first school year at a new post, and his hire was one of the most intriguing among 11 new coaches hired at NAIA schools thus far in the offseason. French took on a building project at Oakland City, a school not in California or even Michigan (as NCAA Division I member Oakland University is), but in southern Indiana, 40 minutes north of Evansville. The Baptist school of 1,200 recently returned to the NAIA from NCAA Division II in 2020, though that affiliation was in some ways a technicality as the Mighty Oaks’ schedules regularly included a number of tiny four-year and even two-year schools in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) and United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA). Oakland City was a power at its level and as recently as 2018-19 finished 24-5 and won the Christian College National Invitational Tournament. It finished 15-36 over the past two years as the schedule toughened up. Oakland City has increased its commitment to athletics. French notes that, like many NAIA and small colleges, the school is using athletics as a tool to increase enrollment. French’s experience is a boon for a school just getting reacquainted with the NAIA, as he comes to Oakland City with considerable experience at the NAIA level. He spent the past 14 years at the University of Rio Grande (Ohio), winning 173 games over 14 seasons. Highlights included a trip to the NAIA Division II national semifinals in 2001 and another trip to the national tourney in 2003. French also was active in leadership both on campus with the NAIA’s Champions of Character program and on a national level among coaches on numerous committees. In an illustration of how cruel the coaching business can be even at the small college level, though, he was let go by Rio Grande at the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. Just over a year later, French is back in the game. “It’s NAIA, and it’s a faith-based institution, and I was definitely looking for that because I run a faith-based program,” said French of the appeal of the Oakland City job. “It’s in Indiana, it’s in a good location. Obviously, NAIA basketball in Indiana is big-time,” he added, referring to programs like national powers Indiana Wesleyan, Marian and St. Francis (Ind.). “We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’re almost building a program from scratch, not historically but as far as being back in the NAIA and the River States Conference. I look at it as a great challenge.” French’s philosophy is focused on developing his student-athletes beyond just performance on the court. “We’ve got a slogan: We call it ‘Play for MORE.’ It stands for memories, others, relationships and excellence,” he said. “And we stress that with our guys, and understanding what it means to play for others. “We feel like God and family are first, the program is second, and then you come third. When I recruit young men, we want them to grow in four areas: academically, socially, athletically and spiritually. Oakland City gave me the opportunity to focus on all four of those areas.” French’s connections at the NAIA level should only help boost the visibility of the Mighty Oaks program. He is the founder and director of The Show, an early-season NAIA showcase in Kingsport, Tenn., featuring 16 men’s teams and six women’s teams. He also has served on the NAIA-NABC executive board and on NAIA tournament and All-American committees. “I feel like that’s how you give back to the game,” said French. “I’ve always believed, if you’re good to the game, it’ll be good to you. I feel a responsibility as a coach to give back, and to be involved in committees, that’s another way to give back.” French said he will continue with that at Oakland City as opportunities present. In the meantime, his focus is on his new school. “They’re committed to building a good NAIA program, and doing some things that need to be done, but they’re doing it the right way,” he said. “It’s going to be a great challenge to build it.”
NAIA Coaching Changes