Who is North American University?

North American University Athletics

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Kenneth Apande appears to be a busy man as he connects for our mid-morning conversation. In reality, he is a busy man who hurried from a networking event to his office for this portion of his busy schedule.

I begin the interview by asking a simple question. “Who is North American University?” Apande smiles as he begins to answer. After all, North American University could be in any number of cities.

“That’s a reaction I get from a lot of people, even at some of these networking events, when I tell them we’re the only football program in Fort Bend County,” Apande said. “They become intrigued and want to know what we’re about.”

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To truly grasp the essence of NAU, one must delve into the school’s history. The founders, hailing from Turkey, embarked on a transformative journey that led them to establish Texas Gulf Institute in 2007. Initially, the institute focused on teaching English as a second language. TGI was nestled in an area of Houston known as Greater Greenspoint, also called the North Houston District, near George Bush International Airport.

The school changed its name to North American College after adding Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees in 2010. NAC continued to grow and underwent another name change to North American University in 2013 after being authorized to offer a Master of Education in Educational Leadership. Two years later, NAU moved out of crime-ridden Greenspoint 32 miles to Stafford on the Southwest side of Houston.

Since the founders were from Turkey, they were unaware of the importance of an athletics department for a university in the United States. It’s not that colleges in Turkey don’t have athletics, but they are a club sport. Admittedly, Apande had to demonstrate to the administration the need for sanctioned athletic programs. Fortunately, he convinced the administration of the idea of sports increasing enrollment and validating the university’s status in the collegiate landscape.

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NAU began recruiting players in 2019 for a football program that expected to play its first full season in 2020. Unfortunately, a global pandemic occurred that year, halting the world for many months. Scheduling was challenging for every team during that period, while conferences debated whether to play a fall or spring schedule. Apande faced a significant challenge trying to schedule teams while playing as an independent. But first, he needed approval from the administration to play during a pandemic. Despite the roadblocks, the NAU administration gave its blessing to play, and the Stallions played seven games.

The 2021 season opened with a scrimmage against Hardin-Simmons. Some NAU supporters remain haunted by what transpired over the next two weeks, beginning with a trip to Louisiana College, which was transitioning from DIII to NAIA and undergoing a name change of its own to Louisiana Christian University. NAU jumped out to a 34-7 lead before the outer bands of Hurricane Ida arrived in Pineville. 

The headline of the recap on LCU’s website reads, “Unfortunate Rain Shower Drenches Wildcats Wild Comeback Attempt.” Like many universities, the story is slanted toward the Wildcats. Towards the bottom of the recap is a paragraph that blames Mother Nature for the 42-41 defeat. The writer blamed the rain for playing “a role in several key misses on pass plays during the last eight minutes of the contest, including several incompletions, an interception on an underthrown ball, and the play that locked up the result, a muffed punt with 30 seconds remaining in the contest.” 

The Stallions hit the road for another challenge the following week against Lamar, which unfortunately led to negative publicity across the college sports world. The negativity had nothing to do with the 47-3 defeat and a near 300-yard deficit in total yards. The Stallions program was plagued by something outside their control.

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It was a simple mistake, but boy, that mistake cost NAU a lot of negative publicity.

We must rewind to the end of August to understand the depths to which their reputation took an unnecessary hit. That’s when ESPN aired a high school football game between IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore. IMG won the contest 58-0, but it quickly became apparent that Bishop Sycamore didn’t belong on the same field as IMG. Questions about Bishop Sycamore's legitimacy followed and made national headlines.

The Stallions faced the Cardinals four days after the Bishop Sycamore catastrophe, and fans immediately noticed that ESPN did not have NAU’s logo on the screen. ESPN had emailed a request for a logo to someone in NAU’s administration the week before the Stallions faced Lamar. Unfortunately, the email went unnoticed. The exact reason why the email didn’t receive a response is unknown. Still, some speculate the reason could be anything from an unfortunate oversight to some of the administration being unfamiliar with the “Worldwide Leader in Sports” due to spending most of their lives in Turkey.

What might have gone unnoticed in 2024 did not go unnoticed when everyone was craving the return of a “normal” football season in 2021. This, combined with a limited number of football games on Thursday night, meant thousands of football fans were tuned into the contest in Beaumont. However, hardly anyone knew that NAU was beginning its first full season of college football as an independent with hopes of eventually obtaining membership in NAIA.

Indeed, the Stallions were overmatched against the FCS Cardinals. But with so many eyes on the game, some began to speculate that NAU was the collegiate version of Bishop Sycamore. Connor Toole at brobible.com penned a story titled, “The College Football Team At A Blacklisted School Run By An Alleged Terrorist Is Officially The New Bishop Sycamore,” which pointed readers to view multiple plays of the game posted on X/Twitter by who the author designated an “internet historian” Timothy Burke.

What followed in the story was a poorly researched history of North American University. According to the author, Burke unearthed evidence that NAU was on an “NCAA blacklist,” and the university’s president at that time was once on “Turkey’s Most Wanted list in connection to terrorism accusations.” 

NAU was not “blacklisted” by the NCAA. However, due to NAU not being officially recognized as an associate member by the NAIA, the NCAA did not count the result against NAU towards the team’s official record. As for the terrorism accusations, one should recall the story of Enes Kanter Freedom, who was placed on Turkey’s terrorist wanted list in 2023.

While the story by brobible.com is easily debunked, the damage was significant nonetheless. 

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It turns out a 47-3 defeat to an FCS school isn’t uncommon, especially for a startup NAIA program that is still trying to fill its roster. Like FCS teams often play a “money game” or two during the season to help fund the program and entire athletic department, NAIA teams play “money games” against NCAA opponents yearly.

According to Apande, NAU intentionally played more than its share of “money games” during its first four years. The depth of talent at the FCS level compared to NAIA is enormous, which has led to some lopsided results for the Stallions. Last year, Portland State scored 13 touchdowns in the first three quarters of a 91-0 contest, and UIW opened its home slate with a 63-3 victory over NAU the following week.

The reason for playing so many “money games” is twofold. The apparent reason is the need for as much money as possible to fund a new athletic department. The other reason is the experience it provides the athletes.

“Those games give the kids a taste of the student-athlete experience in Division I. A lot of these kids say they should be DI players. If you should’ve been, let’s see you go against them,” Apande said. “These games also allow us to have an extra expense that enhances our students' experience by sleeping in a good hotel and eating well on our trips.”

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Some have questioned why it’s taken NAU so long to become a full-time member of the NAIA. The process has taken much longer than Apande or the administration expected. Still, part of the delay is due to the world shutting down in 2020, which slowed the accreditation process. 

The university obtained national accreditation, but regional accreditation has proven difficult for NAU. In June 2023, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) denied its attempt at regional accreditation. According to the SACSOC report, NAU was denied regional accreditation because it did not have enough full-time faculty and did not provide adequate documentation on financial resources and documents.

The SACSOC stated it expects an applicant to “employ an adequate number of full-time faculty members to support the mission and goals of the institution; to have sound financial resources; and to provide an annual budget that is preceded by sound planning, is subject to sound fiscal procedures, and is approved by the governing board.”

The denial of a “Candidacy Committee” visit is not appealable, and NAU “may submit another application in the future.” Apande said the university will submit another application and has asked the NAIA to approve it for full-time status while it awaits regional accreditation.

“We aren’t 100 percent sure when we’ll get our regional accreditation. We were able to obtain our national accreditation during covid, and we’re currently in the process of acquiring our regional accreditation,” Apande said. “Two other universities were accepted for full-time status while holding national and no regional accreditation. We’re going to submit a proposal to see if we can get the green light to become a full-time member while waiting on our regional accreditation.”

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One side effect of not receiving its regional accreditation is that NAU is ineligible for the postseason. However, each conference establishes guidelines for allowing NAU’s players to receive postseason recognition from the conference while they remain an associate member of NAIA. 

Remember NAU’s 42-41 victory over Louisiana College? Sources believe the Wildcats' ill feelings over that loss keep NAU’s athletes from receiving SAC recognition. However, Apande thinks that being an associate member of the SAC for football is the main reason the players do not receive awards. The rest of NAU’s athletic programs compete in the Red River Athletic Conference.

“Each conference does things a little bit differently. Right now, we get postseason recognition in the RRAC, but we don’t in the SAC because we’re an associate member for football,” Apande said. “We feel like NAIA is a good fit for what we want our students to experience, and everyone wants to have something to play for. We’re trying our hardest to make sure we give them the ability to have a chance at making the playoffs and get postseason recognition our kids deserve.”

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As the 30-minute interview nears its conclusion, Apande prepares to move on to the next item on his daily agenda. In addition to his duties as head football coach in charge of starting a program, Apande also serves as the athletic director for a department that features eight active programs, with cross country soon to become the ninth NAU athletic program.

Apande’s ability to handle his numerous daily responsibilities amazes those closest to him. NAU’s first quarterback, Donavan Newman, eventually became the team’s quarterback coach in 2022 before moving to Houston Christian last year. The man affectionately known as Coach D-New, who currently serves as recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach at Division III Millsaps, jumped at the opportunity to speak about the NAU football program and his mentor.

“Getting a program started is never easy, especially when you’ve never been in charge of a football program before,” Newman said. “There were a lot of decisions made early that were tough for Coach Apande regarding budget and facilities, which no one in the administration had dealt with before.

“Everything began to change for NAU when the administration realized that football can’t be treated like a club sport and that athletic programs play a big role in universities here. It’s amazing how Coach Apande is able to build the football program while dealing with everything that comes with being the athletic director. He never seems to tire.”

Despite the roadblocks NAU has experienced in becoming a full-time member of NAIA, everyone contacted for this story believes the Stallions' future is bright once they receive their regional accreditation and finally complete the process to become a full-time member of NAIA.

“NAU is a goldmine waiting to explode as the administration continues to realize the value of facilities and everything that goes into being a successful football program,” Newman said. “They have a fertile recruiting area in Houston, which has many players who can play NAIA but haven’t had the opportunity until now. It takes time to achieve the steps necessary to be successful, but I believe this program will achieve greatness.”

Apande believes NAU will see success on the playing field and expressed the need to remain patient during the process while pointing out the advantage of being the only NAIA program in and around Houston.

“It takes time to get to where we want to be as a school and program. We’re being patient. Our school dynamics are very unique. We almost have our own niche, being the only NAIA school in Houston, and there isn’t another NAIA program within three and a half to four hours from us.”

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