As far as I can remember, it was at some point during my sophomore year of high school when I first heard the name, “Bevo Francis”. Mr. John Finn (my grade-school coach/sponsor for Confirmation/one of my favorite human beings) took myself and Gary Boyce (who could really play, and was two grades ahead of me) to Rio Grande for a visit. We ended up having a meal with Coach John Lawhorn at the Bob Evans in town (Rio Grande is the home of Bob Evans). This was the mid-1980’s. During that trip, I first learned a little bit about the legend of Bevo Francis. I reality, I must admit that I hadn’t heard, thought or learned much about him until recent years. Now, in the past few years, I’ve really dug into the story, and the more I’ve learned of the details, the more I am astonished and amazed with this incredible piece of basketball history.
If you aren’t familiar with this story, read on. Heck, even if you are familar with the story, read on. The Bevo story is one of the great stories in college basketball history, and I will provide an abbreviated version of it, as books have been written on him, a film documentary was created (by Barney McCoy - who provides great detail in this video piece), a link on the Rio Grande web site (www.rioredstorm.com) - within the Athletics portion of the site) is dedicated to the Bevo story, and a tournament is held in his name. Read on, and enjoy one of the great collegiate basketball stories in our lifetime, as I’m not sure that I will see something like this again in my lifetime.
Clarence “Bevo” Francis went to Wellsville High School, where he was coached by Newt Oliver. A few little nuggets about Bevo: While his real name is Clarence, he is widely known as Bevo, a name which he got from the name of a beer that his Dad drank. He grew to 6’9”, and had incredible touch on his shot. He was a country boy who fell in love, got married and had a son at an early age - before he entered college at Rio Grande.
Bevo averaged 31 points per game in high school for a team that went 23-2, but because of his age, never played his senior year. He didn’t graduate high school with his class, yet was given permission from the Ohio College Association to play collegiate basketball before he received his high school diploma. While playing during his freshman year at Rio Grande, Bevo was also enrolled at Rio Grande High School to finish his last credit-and-a-half of high school.
Newt, a former star player for Rio Grande, got the Head Coaching position at Rio Grande after Bevo’s senior year of high school. While he was recruited fairly heavily in the region, he chose to go with his coach to Rio. To come to Rio Grande, Bevo was given his scholarship, an apartment for himself, his wife and his son, $75 a month for groceries and a job on campus that paid 50 cents per hour. As he became a national figure, he was also paid for personal appearances and speaking engagements.
At the time, college basketball throughout the country was struggling with attendance in the wake of major gambling scandals. It was a national problem for the game of basketball, and the popularity of the game waned as the image was tarnished. According to Barney McCoy, “College basketball was reeling from a gambling scandal when Oliver was hired….A year earlier, 32 players from seven schools had been accused or convicted of taking cash and shaving points in 86 basketball games,” said the Bevo Francis biographer. “The scandal involved City College of New York, 1950 NCAA champion. University of Kentucky players were involved, too. The Wildcats had to suspend their basketball program for a year.”
By the time that Bevo arrived on campus in the Fall of 1952, a young Associated Press reporter named Dave Diles wrote that “college basketball was playing to a sea of empty seats. Nobody cared about it. It had been stained so badly.”
America, and the game of basketball, needed a hero. The game needed a spark, something positive. The game of basketball got a hero. His name was Bevo Francis.
Rio Grande was a very small school. I mean really small. Their were 38 boys in the school when Bevo arrived. The school was on the verge of bankruptcy and closing its doors. When Newt Oliver and Bevo showed up on campus, the program had one winning season in their history. Think about this for a moment and put yourself in this situation: 38 boys in a school on the verge of bankruptcy, in a tiny little country town in Southwestern Ohio, with one winning season in all their years of collegiate competition…..and Newt Oliver came in and told them that Rio Grande would be playing in the Garden in a year, and that Bevo Francis would lead the country in scoring. Obviously, the players got a laugh out of that one. Only Newt was serious.
With big dreams, Newt made sure to mail $25 to the NCAA to have them record game scores and statistics. Ultimately, this would be important for the team’s records and Bevo’s scoring exploits, but there would be a real challenge…..read on.
To fast forward a little bit, the team played seven games in November, and won them all. After winning the next 10 to take their record to 17-0, Rio Grande was averaging over 100 ppg, and Bevo was averaging about 50 per game. It was at this time that Newt Oliver convinced the young AP writer, Dave Diles (from Columbus, OH), to come to a game.
In short, Diles attended a home game in their gym that was mockingly called the “Hog Pen”. It was practically a tiny, beat-up, barn with a gym floor and basketball goals. On that night of December 12, 1952, Rio defeated California State 105-73, and Bevo scored 72 points. When Diles put his story out on the AP wire, he later said that “he was being inundated with these requests from all over the country: Who is Bevo Francis?”
On January 9, 1953, Rio Grande played a home game against Ashland (KY), still undefeated and now nationally known and covered by the media. With less than five minutes to go, Bevo had 80 points. When Bevo dribbled the length of the court, he broke the national scoring record when he threw down a thunderous dunk. He and his teammates, however, weren’t done. They continued to feed Bevo until he finished with an incredible record of 116 points. That is not a typo: 116 points in a single game!
When this hit the AP wire, the news media and fans from around the country were in a frenzy and everyone wanted to see Bevo Francis. According to Barney McCoy, who created the documentary on Bevo, “Within days, reporters from newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations descended on Rio Grande College looking for every possible detail on Francis.” Juanita Dailey, a Francis biographer, wrote: “He was just married, he had this young baby and somebody knocking at your door at all hours. That got to be a real hardship for him and his family.”
By the end of the 1952-53 season, the Rio Grande Redmen (today they are the Red Storm) finished 39-0 and sold $15,000 worth of tickets, which helped pay the faculty and keep the school alive. In fact, the school was in such financial straights that the American Baptist Association voted to drop its support of Rio Grande during that January of 1953, but Bevo and his teammates managed to keep the school financially afloat. The national publicity of the team also contributed to a 26 percent increase in enrollement heading into the 1953-54 school year.
Now, a couple of items of interest in the aftermath of that incredible season: 1) Bevo’s national scoring record of 116 points against Ashland (KY) was taken away after the season. The NCAA and NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches) passed a new ruling that said, in essence, that NCAA statistical records were to be counted only against four-year (bachelor degree granting or above), accredited colleges or universities. (Ashland was a junior college). When they created this rule, they made it effective retroactively, making this the first time that the NCAA/NABC passed a rule and made it effective retroactively, thus taking away Bevo’s national scoring record and adjusting many of his scoring exploits and the team’s overall record - at least “officially”, according to the NCAA. The NAIA (Rio Grande was dual affiliated at the time, and is solely an NAIA member today) had recognized all games played, including the individual scoring record of 116 against Ashland. 2) While the 39-0 team record was astounding, especially given the circumstances, critics were quick to point out that Rio Grande played a weak schedule.
While celebrated throughout the country, Newt, Bevo and the Rio Grande team heard the doubters. During the 1953-54 season, Newt Oliver scheduled every single game on the road and put together a schedule that was incredibly lofty for such a tiny school that now had a total of two winning seasons in the school’s history. The schedule included such national powers as Wake Forest, North Carolina, Villanova, Miami (FL), Providence, Arizona State, Creighton and other schools that are today NCAA Division I programs. The schedule also led them to playing in Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden, among other prominent venues; thus fulfilling the statement made by Newt Oliver shortly after taking over as Head Coach of Rio Grande.
In each of the “Gardens”, the Redmen drew packed houses of 13,000, as fans from all over the country wanted a glimpse of Bevo. After Rio’s 40-game winning streak (they won their first game of the season) was ended by Adelphia at Madison Square Garden, Bevo scored 41 points (tying a Boston Garden record) in the school’s first “big” win by defeating Providence, 89-87. The $10,000 that they earned on that trip helped pay Rio’s faculty and keep the school afloat.
In December, Bevo outscored the entire Blufton team by scoring an astounding 82 points, thus resetting the NCAA’s “new” scoring record.
Soon thereafter, the Redmen defeated Miami (FL), and fell to the #8 team in the country, the NC State Wolfpack. After the defeat, Rio only had one day to prepare for the defending ACC Champions, Wake Forest. In a game that went down to the wire in front of 8,000 fans, Rio’s Wayne Wiseman stole the ball with three seconds left in a tie game, found Bevo Francis, and the final shot was almost a storybook ending…..Bevo’s shot left his hand just before the buzzer sounded and the amazed fans watched as the ball dropped through the hoop to witness tiny Rio Grande’s victory over the defending ACC Champions. Incredible.
"A bunch of kids from Rio Grande can beat Providence, can beat Miami, can beat Wake Forest," said Dave Diles. "You don’t dare dream that high."
Bevo wasn’t done yet. While he now owned the “official” national scoring record in a game, he hadn’t yet “officially” broken the 100-point barrier in a collegiate game to become the first to ever accomplish such a feat (although quite a few people saw him score 116 against Ashland the season prior). This was about to change.
The date was February 2, 1954. The opponent was Hillsdale College from Michigan, and the game was played in front of a sold-out, energized crowd at Jackson (OH) High School. By halftime, he had 43 points. By the end of the third quarter, Bevo had 74 points. In the final 10 minutes, he averaged two points every 30 seconds, and the Redmen won 134-91, with Bevo Francis scoring 113 points. This “official” record still stands today as the highest single game total in college basketball history. The ball that was used in the game that day is now on display in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA.
That March, Rio Grande was invited to play in the prestigious NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City, and was the tournament’s #1 seed. Prior to the tournament, however, Bevo sprained his ankle badly. After all of the tickets to Municipal Auditorium were sold out, standing room only tickets were sold. Those tickets also sold out, and hundreds waited in the lobby of Municipal Auditorium, just hoping to get a glimpse of Bevo Francis. With estimates of 10,500 in attendance for Bevo’s first game against Arizona State, it was the largest opening-day crowd in the tournament’s history. Although injured, Bevo managed 28 points while the Redmen defeated Arizona State 90-74. The following game, Bevo’s 27 points weren’t enough, as the Redmen fell to Southeastern Louisiana, 78-65, in Bevo’s final game in the famed Municipal Auditorium.
For the 1953-54 season, the Rio Grande Redmen finished with a record of 21-7, competing with some of the nation’s finest teams at the highest level. They earned $50,000 in ticket sales, which accounted for a quarter of the school’s operating budget and helped save the school from closing. In addition, through games and appearances, the team, Bevo and Newt raised thousands of dollars for polio and the Shriner’s Hospital.
Counting all games in 1952-53, Bevo Francis averaged 50.1 points per game in a perfect 39-0 season. During the 1953-54 season, in which Rio Grande played many major college teams that were obviously focusing their defensive attention on him, Bevo averaged 47.1 points per game. In his two-year collegiate career, Bevo Francis played 67 games and scored 3,273 points.
Unfortunately, Coach Newt Oliver and Rio Grande’s President Charles Davis had serious disagreements, and Newt left Rio Grande. Meanwhile Bevo Francis was trying to juggle a wife, son, school and life as a national celebrity, and decided to move onto professional basketball. Together, Newt Oliver and Bevo joined Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters, as Head Coach and star player, to Coach and play for the Boston Whirlwinds for a 130-game barnstorming tour against the Globetrotters.
Today, Bevo lives in Wellsville, Ohio, with his wife, Jean. He recently turned 78 years old. Newt Oliver lives in Springfield, Ohio, with his wife, Maxine. He is now 86 years old. Dave Diles passed away in this past year.
Rio Grande University is now a thriving university with over 2,100 students and annually hosts the “Bevo Francis Tournament” on campus.
As a note, I used several sources for this piece. I used an article written by Bernard Rogers McCoy on November 1, 2008. The quote from Juanita Dailey is also taken from the article from Bernard McCoy. I also used the athletic web site from the University of Rio Grande. Also, I used information from the book, Basketball and the Rio Grande College Legend, by New Oliver, with Dr. Danny Fulks. In addition, I used information provided from current Rio Grande Head Coach Ken French. I thank each of these sources for providing quality information for this story.