The savior of basketball?
Francis set records, pumped up a sport with quiet humility
There's a story they tell down in this rural, southeastern part of Ohio.
A local man had made it big in international finance and was looking to expand his influence by partnering with banks in Japan. This was proving easier said than done, however. When he finally got an interview with the president of a bank, he needed some help to close the deal.
The man used his connections to bring along Henry Kissinger to the interview. The Japanese bank president wasn't impressed with his famous visitor, though, and our protagonist's heart sank. But something quickly and surprisingly changed when a point on the hopeful local's resume caught the president's eye.
"It says here that you attended Rio Grande College," the man said with excitement. "Do you know Bevo Francis?"
Where is he now?
Today, Clarence "Bevo" Francis lives in a cozy two-story house an hour southeast of Cleveland. Pale blue shutters frame the red brick house, which is surrounded by perfectly trimmed hedges and a barking pair of dogs that provide a natural soundtrack out back. It's four hours northeast of Rio Grande and even farther removed from Francis' time as a global basketball superstar in the early 1950s.
There are hints, however.
The hands that swallow yours during an introductory handshake possessed one of the greatest shooting touches in the history of college basketball. His imposing height, causing Francis to duck under doorframes, was once used to terrorize opposing coaches. This is a man who scored 116 points in a single game, averaged 50.1 points per night during his freshman season at Rio Grande and still holds court atop many NCAA records.
"I don't think there's anybody out there who is the kind of scorer that this man was," says Gene Moore, who met Francis while attending high school in nearby Wellsville, remaining friends with him to this day. "We were at a banquet once, and this is how he was introduced: 'Wilt Chamberlain, Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan, they all have one thing in common - they're all still chasing Bevo Francis.'"
Moore adds, "There's no comparison as far as scoring. Nobody shot like that before or since."
Francis saved his school from bankruptcy. He brought fans back to college basketball after the ugly point-shaving scandal of the late '40s and once sold out Madison Square Garden.
When talking to the mild-mannered 79-year-old today, though, such accomplishments and lore seem unbelievable. He deflects every mention of his fame back toward his former teammates, exuding a humility Moore says Francis has had from the start.
"Considering where he came from and where he went to, and all the glory in between, it never changed him," Moore says.
Savior of a school
When Francis arrived on the campus of Rio Grande, the school was on life support. It had lost its Baptist affiliation and all the funding that went with it, and there were tentative plans to close at the end of the 1952-'53 school year.
"We had 38 boys [at the school], and I recruited probably half of them," head coach Newt Oliver jokes.
The state of the basketball program wasn't much better. Rio Grande had just one winning season in school history up to that point and had managed just four wins the season before.
It was a tough sell to a player of Francis' talent. He went to go see Rio Grande play during his senior year of high school, and the game was far from the most striking first impression.
"I told Newt, there are no boys there that can play ball," Francis says.
But Oliver had coached Francis in high school before taking the Rio Grande job, and the latter knew that a few practices would weed out the weaker players. This trust was all it took to get the 6-foot, 9-inch scoring machine to Rio Grande.
Francis knew that under Oliver, the talent would improve. There was no changing the facilities, however, and they would have to make the best of it. The gym, colorfully nicknamed the "Hog Pen," didn't even have locker rooms so players would have to sprint through freezing temperatures back to their dorms to shower in winter.
Don Vynalek, a teammate of Francis' at Rio Grande, remembers his first impression all too well.
"It was the worst thing I've ever seen for a basketball court," Vynalek says. "It had tile floors that were curled up, a roof that leaked, no seating, a stage at one end and that's it."
Despite the challenges, Oliver forged on and turned the program around. With his star on board, Oliver stocked Rio Grande with players either overlooked by bigger programs or eager to get around the NCAA's rule prohibiting freshmen from playing on varsity teams. Rio Grande's NAIA status allowed players to see the floor right away.
Jim McKenzie turned down legendary coach Adolph Rupp and powerhouse Kentucky to join Francis at Rio Grande, with Vynalek coming a year later after saying no to in-state behemoth Nebraska.
"They were five special guys," Moore says. "It would probably never happen again, because in this day and age you could never get five guys willing to give up the ball like they did. Wayne Wiseman was the distributor. Roy Moses was like a little bull, a rebounder. Everybody had their little niche."
The team developed a distinct style. Wiseman originally drove Oliver crazy with his behind-the-back passes, but the coach eventually came around. McKenzie and Wiseman provided the creativity and looseness, Moses the basketball IQ and Dick Barr the hustle.
Francis was the undisputed star, the one who earned the headlines. But he is quick to acknowledge that Rio Grande was far from a one-man team.
"[Leave me on] the floor and put the other four on the bench and see how many points I score," Francis says.
Yet, such unselfishness wasn't limited only to the big man. Oliver didn't mince words with his role players. His gameplan from the start was to score 100 points a game, with Francis contributing at least 50 of those. Most players would balk at such a suggestion, but this team was willing to sacrifice.
"They'd come into the game and say, 'Bevo's going to get 50, we're going to get 50,'" Vynalek says. "'We don't care who gets our 50 as long as we get our 50.' I don't think I ever heard those guys complaining that Bevo shot too much. They were in it to win. We liked winning."
The shared passion for success, along with limited options for entertainment in Rio Grande bonded the players immediately.
"We were like brothers," Francis says. "If you saw one of us, you saw us all. There was nothing else to do, so we'd go play ball until 7 or 8 at night [even after practice was over]."
Winning is fun
The results of such chemistry exceeded even the wildest expectations. The team went 39-0 in the 1952-53 season, which at the time was the all-time win total for a college team. Just as Oliver drew it up, the offense averaged more than 100 points per game and Francis topped 50.
Even the Hog Pen had a shining moment: it played host to Francis' 116-point performance in a 150-85 victory against Ashland (Ky.) Junior College.
Rio Grande had become a national sensation, and old-timers remember when reporters, some from publications as well-known as Time and Newsweek, outnumbered residents in the village. But the attention did little to faze the players, even as they were photographed during meals.
"We just went and did our thing and said, 'Do what you've got to do,'" Francis says.
And yet, not everyone was as impressed. Complaints began flooding into the NCAA offices. Bigger, more established programs did not want the record books rewritten by someone playing against relatively small-time junior colleges and NAIA schools. The 116-point game and many of the 39 wins from 1952-53 were deemed ineligible as the NCAA established a still-standing policy that only games played against four-year U.S. colleges would count in a team's won-lost record and for team and individual statistics.
To Oliver, there was only one solution: hit the road and beat the big boys at their own game. The result was a season unlike any other.
Oliver's grand plans for Rio Grande were met with incredulity at first. When he told his team that they would one day play at Madison Square Garden, veteran guard Wiseman quipped, "Coach, the only garden we'll ever see is one with a hoe."
One year later, Oliver visions came true. Tiny Rio Grande was regularly playing in the basketball palaces of the day.
"It was just awesome to go out in some of the places we played -- Butler Fieldhouse [now named Hinkle Fieldhouse], Cincinnati Gardens, Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, Miami Beach Auditorium, Raleigh Fieldhouse," says Dick Meyers, a freshman on the '53-'54 team. "It was just awesome to see those crowds and find yourself a part of what was going on."
For college basketball, Rio Grande was the perfect team at a perfect time to resurrect the game's image. Led by Francis' scoring and Oliver's promoting -- NAIA historian John McCarthy refers to the coach as the "P.T. Barnum of college basketball" -- Rio Grande put fans back in the stands and a fresh face back on the game.
"Basketball was in a bad spot," Oliver says. "I just think that we rejuvenated basketball. We just had this drawing power. People would line up for blocks just to see us play."
Rio Grande was more than just a traveling sideshow -- they could match any team, anywhere -- and few of the remaining players even remember the size of the crowds.
"To me, I couldn't have told you how many people there were," Francis says. "The other guys were the same way. We went to play ball, not be crowd pleasers."
Their list of famous victories from that season is remarkable, even more so given the size of the school and its lack of basketball history.
"I've studied a lot of college basketball over the years. I want to say that it is up there among the greatest stories in college basketball history," McCarthy says. "It is not just about one thing. It's the collection of many pieces coming together at once."
Rio Grande defeated national powers Providence, Miami (Fla.), Butler, Creighton, Arizona State and, most impressively, defending ACC champion Wake Forest. They pushed Villanova and North Carolina State to the wire. In total, Rio Grande went 21-7 despite playing nearly every game on the road and against tough competition.
Following the 1953-54 season, Francis was named a second-team Associated Press All-American.
While several Rio Grande games, especially in Francis's freshman season did not count toward NCAA statistics and records, Francis still managed to set the collegiate (all-divisions) record for points in a single-game when he scored 113 against Hillsdale College on Feb. 2, 1954.
That season, he also posted the best single-season scoring average in collegiate history (46.5 points per game) and scored the fourth most points (1,255) in a single-season despite being the only player among the top seven to play in fewer than 28 games. During his two years at Rio Grande, he scored 50 or more points 14 times in his 39 games against four-year colleges.
Yet for all of the breathtaking wins and individual accolades, Francis slips into his characteristic modesty when asked his proudest moment of that famous season. "For me," he says with pride, "it was the way we grouped and came together as a team."
As time goes on, the name Bevo Francis rings a bell with fewer and fewer people. But to those involved, the memories remain fresh.
"At the time all this was going on, I don't think we realized the full extent of it as it's looked upon now," Meyers says. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
Bevo and his teammates accomplished a feat that will never be done again. They were the college version of Hoosiers, the little team that could. And just as suddenly as they rose, the story was cut disappointingly short.
The legacy of what they did, however, still burns brightly.
"There would be no University of Rio Grande without Bevo Francis," McCarthy says. "He put the shining face back on college basketball."
This story was originally written for and first appeared in Southeast Ohio Magazine