Monday, June 11, 2007


One of the greatest sports legends of the 1950's was a tall (6'9"), gangly basketball player named Bevo Francis who dazzled the sports world by scoring 116 points in one game, while playing for tiny Rio (pronounced RYE-o) Grande College in Wellesville, Ohio, in the foothills of the Appalachians. Towering above most of the players of that era, Francis could shoot the ball from inside or outside from what is now considered 3-point range. For the 1952-53 season, he averaged over 50 points per game, although the NAIA didn't recognize some of the games as "official" because they were played against junior colleges, military bases and bible seminaries. So, according to the NAIA, his official scoring average was only 48.3 points per game, which is still the record.

From today's perspective, one rarely sees one-man teams anymore, and certainly not winning teams, although this year's Cleveland Cavaliers, starring LeBron James, may be a limited exception.

One could rightfully wonder how Mr. Francis ended up at a college like Rio Grande which had just 94 students, of which 56 were girls. The season before Mr. Francis arrived on campus, the team won 4 and lost 19. Mr. Francis was recruited by major colleges, but stood by his small town high school coach who took the job at Rio Grande.

The college gym had no showers (the players ran across to the dorm), a leaky roof and a tile floor, and it seated less than 200 on folding chairs. Bevo wasn't there for the social life; he got married during his sophomore year in high school, and his oldest child, Frank, was born the following year.

Bevo's real name was Clarence, but his father was called Bevo, named after a popular beer of which he was fond. Clarence was called Little Bevo, until he outgrew his father. He missed two school years because of anemia, but he was tall for his age, and he practiced incessantly on the local ball courts, developing an outstanding jump shot. He earned a reputation as a playground legend, and when he entered Wellesville High School, it was rumored that his parents were given a house to induce Bevo to enroll there. The superintendent believed that where there's smoke, there's fire, and ruled him ineligible for his freshman and sophomore years in high school. His coach, Newt Oliver, kept the faith, and finally got Bevo for his junior year, and he didn't disappoint. He averaged over 30 points per game and made the Ohio All-State team. He was ineligible his senior year because he turned age 20.

At that point, Coach Oliver moved on to coach the Rio Grande Redmen and brought his star player, Francis, who hadn't graduated from high school, with him. No problem. The coach enrolled him at the local high school to complete his missing credits. "Don't worry about passing English, you can speak English."

This scenario sounds like a bad Gabe Kaplan movie (see Fast Break, 1979) , but Coach Oliver was a promoter in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. He knew he had a prize in Bevo Francis, and assembled a weak schedule designed to showcase Francis' offensive talents. He raided the Athletic Dept. treasury for $25.00 to ensure that the NCAA would include Francis' scoring figures in the national weekly statistics.

Oliver was quoted as saying, "I knew that people wouldn't pay to see five players score 15 points each; I knew they would flock in to see one player score 50."

And that they did. On January 19, 1953, Francis scored 116 points against Ashland (KY) Junior College, which the NCAA didn't recognize because Ashland was not a four year college. The score of the game was 150-85. On January 24th, he scored 68 points against Mountain State Junior College in a 133-82 victory. That season, he also scored 76 against Lees College and 72 against California State, as the Redmen won all 39 games, blowing out cupcake opponents by big scores. The public loved it, and as the season wore on, reporters were swarming all over the campus. Francis scored 1954 points that season, and broke almost every offensive record in the book.

The following season, Coach Oliver got down to business scheduling bigger name opponents, all on the road, because big time basketball powers would never travel to such a podunk campus. He tried unsuccessfully to schedule Ohio State, and he still maintains that the Buckeyes were afraid to play them. He scheduled games against basketball powers such as Creighton (win), North Carolina State (loss), Providence (win), Villanova (loss), Wake Forest (win) and Arizona State (win) .

The Redmen got their big break in New York's Madison Square Garden against Adelphi before a crowd of 13,000, as Francis scored 28 points in the first half, but only 4 in the second half in a losing effort. Stage fright. The next night, Rio Grande dropped an overtime thriller to Villanova in Philadelphia 93-92, as Francis scored 39 points. But the Redman rebounded and beat Providence in the Boston Garden, as Francis lit up the Friars for 41 points. Then they beat Miami in Florida 98-88, as Francis scored 48. At the Christmas tournament in Raleigh, North Carolina, they lost to NC State by 15, as Francis scored 34, but beat Wake Forest on a last second jump shot by you know who.

On February 2, 1954, in a 134-91 win over Hillsdale (MI) College, he hit the jackpot, scoring 113 points, despite being guarded by 2 or 3 players at a time. Not known for his passing ability, or finding the open man, Francis took 70 shots, making 38, along with 37 of 45 free throws. If they had the 3-point shot in those days, he might have scored 135.

Shortly after his sophomore season in which Rio Grande won 21 and lost 7, and Francis was voted to the All American Second Team, he was suspended from school for missing classes and midterm exams (they do that?). He signed a professional contract with the Harlem Globetrotters to play for the Boston Whirlwinds, the all-White patsy team that barnstormed with the Globetrotters, and lost every game because that was in the script. "We'd play two quarters and then be the clowns," Francis said, "It was a dog's life." But he made $12,000 per year which was a lot of money in those days.

He never played in the NBA, although drafted by Philadelphia. He found that he could make more money barnstorming, but eventually he gained weight, lost his shooting touch and competitiveness, and went to work in the steel mills, loading trucks for almost 20 years until the plant closed in 1982. Now retired, and 74 years old, he lives quietly with his wife, Jean, in Highlandtown, in Eastern Ohio, in the house they bought in 1954. He spends much time outdoors, hunting and camping.

People still remember Bevo Francis. NBA scouts described him as one of the greatest shooters of all time, from either inside or jump shooting from 20 feet. Many coaches and writers of the day were quoted as describing Francis as the greatest basketball player in history (pre-Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, etc.)--in a class with then superstar George Mikan of the Lakers. But he burned out as quickly as a shooting star. He is still remembered at Rio Grande University, which now has 2200 students. The university hosts a basketball tournament each year in honor of Bevo Francis and Coach Oliver.




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