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Mike Lopresti | | January 15, 2020

Remembering the great Bevo Francis

Lincoln Memorial's Anthony Brown throws down a big dunk on Catawba

RIO GRANDE, Ohio – There is still no stoplight in town, just like the days when the most prolific scorer college basketball has ever seen played here.

You still must drive 20 minutes one way or another to get to a theater, or much of a store. The farmlands and hills of southeastern Ohio still roll on beyond campus. Outsiders still routinely mispronounce the name of the village, and school. It is Rye-o Grand, not Ree-o Grand, like the river in Texas. Who gets it wrong? "Nearly everybody," sports information director Randy Payton was saying.

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Lots of things have changed, of course. There are more than 2,000 students at the University of Rio Grande. Not 92, like when the man who would score 116 points in one game came to town. The NAIA basketball team plays in a nice arena, capacity 1,800. Not one with worn tile floors and a leaky roof and no showers and only folding chairs for the few dozen spectators who showed up. A place so ramshackle, it was called the Hog Pen.

But that was a long time ago, more than 60 years. So distant in the past to forget, right? Wrong. Not here.

The man whose season scoring average is still No. 1 on the NCAA all-time list died last June. So before a game this past weekend, at the annual tournament bearing his name, students took their place on the court to form a giant 32. His jersey number, 32. Then the announcer called for a moment of silence – 32 seconds, actually: "We honor our history, our legend, our hero."

Bevo Francis.

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The name should certainly ring a bell to Baby Boomers in the audience, but others might need an orientation.

His widow Jean was here for the occasion, with lots of other family members. This was the 33rd Bevo Francis Tournament, and he had been to the other 32, so imagine the void. His presence is always felt, though, from the numerous pictures on the walls, to his name that someone etched in the sidewalk cement outside the arena, to the Bevo bobblehead doll on the desk of basketball coach Ken French.

"I don’t know if words can describe what he still means to this place," French said. The night before this tournament every season, he has Rio Grande’s new players to his home for dinner, and shows them documentaries made about the Francis years. Then they have always been able to say hello to the man himself. But not this year.

"For me that’s sad, they don’t get to shake the hand, they don’t get to meet the man," French said. "He’s our legend. That team was our dream team."

So before explaining how it is at Bevo Francis’ old school, maybe we should first remember how it was.

This was 1952. Rio Grande College – an institution created to train Baptist ministers -- had four buildings, a cash flow problem and a basketball team that won four games the season before. But a firebrand high school coach from eastern Ohio, Newt Oliver, showed up to take over the program and recruited one of his prep players to come along; a 6-9 poor kid with a sweet outside shot, who had already married his high school sweetheart and fathered a son. A country boy with a funny nickname, who had played basketball one year in high school and averaged more than 30 points a game.

Clarence Francis was his given name, but since his father’s favorite brand of near beer was Bevo, the nickname stuck. At least to the outside world.

Oliver was a brash young coach with a marketer’s mind. For Rio Grande to win, he knew he needed players. But for the outside world to care, he understood he needed a star, and a method to sell him.

He announced to his assembled new team that the goal was to average 100 points a game. By the way, Bevo would be getting half. And if everyone was on board, he vowed this team from nowhere would eventually play in Madison Square Garden.

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Huh? From the Hog Pen to Broadway? Legend has it one of the veterans, Wayne Wiseman, responded, "The only garden we’ll ever see is one with a hoe."

But then the plan, and Bevo, went to work. He scored 44 points his first game,45 the next, 58 the next. There was no 3-point line, no 1-and-1 bonus on free throws. You got only one, unless you were in the act of shooting. No wonder some teams chose to foul him in a hack-a-Bevo strategy.

It didn’t matter. The victories kept coming – including a couple against a team from Lockbourne Air Force Base, coached by a guy named George Steinbrenner. So did Bevo’s points. Oliver tried to promote his program to any media outlet that would listen, but none did – until Jan. 9, 1953, when Francis hit 47 field goals and 22 free throws against Ashland Junior College. That made 116 points, and the nation first gasped, then grew interested. The reporters arrived in Rio Grande by the platoon, once they could find it.

Clyde Evans was a high school student then, later to be a Rio Grande administrator and member of the Ohio state legislature:

"You’d walk across campus and the reporters and magazine people were running all over everywhere. The Dave Garroway Today Show came in and set up on a stage and wanted to tell the story about this poor little country town that didn’t have anything, and was remote from the rest of the world."

Evans said while Today was on the air, an old gentleman who came to town regularly with his mules happened to wander past the cameras. Welcome to Rio Grande. Meantime, Bevo and his wife Jean and their baby boy lived in an apartment, in the same building as Oliver and his wife. For a while, no radio, no TV, no phone. No money to even buy Jean a ticket to the games. Besides, she had a baby to tend. "I knew Rio Grande won if I heard traffic coming back to Rio and the horns were tooting," she said. The two couples shared a bathroom, and the women washed the team jerseys in the bathtub.

The Feb. 9, 1953 edition of Life magazine carried a story with the headline, "Bevo gives a little Oho college a big lift." Included was a photo of Francis with nearly the entire male student body gathered around him. Not that the photographer needed a wide-angle lens to get in all the fellows. There were fewer than 60 of them.

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The Redmen finished 39-0, averaging 101 points a game. Francis averaged 50.1. But all that carnage had come against small-fry competition. The prestigious NIT never called with an invitation, nor did the NCAA recognize Francis’ scoring records. Oliver defiantly put up a banner that hangs to this day in the arena that now carries his name: "National basketball champions, 1953, 39-0."

Oliver also started working the phones. Rio Grande played 28 games the next season, all 28 away from campus. He would turn his team into barnstormers, going anywhere, the bigger the arena and opponent and paycheck, the better.

The second game of the season was against Adelphi -- in Madison Square Garden. Bevo was booked to do so many interviews that day, by the time he arrived at the Garden, his teammates were already dressed. Things didn’t go well. He scored “only” 32 and Rio Grande lost by 83-76. Some in New York were prepared to label him and his team out of their league against bigger fish.

But not for long. He scored 41 in Boston Garden as the Redmen beat Providence, 48 to help beat Miami, 32 in an upset of Wake Forest, 49 to beat Creighton. The final record was 21-7, with Rio Grande playing in 11 different states. On a trip to Indianapolis, Francis’ 48 points set a Butler (later Hinkle) Fieldhouse scoring record. The same season a skinny high school kid, Bobby Plump, hit the jump shot that would one day become the movie "Hoosiers." So two of the greatest Cinderella stories in the history of the sport missed intersecting in the same gymnasium by only 10 weeks.

On Feb. 2, 1954, Francis set a record the NCAA agreed to recognize, with 113 points against Hillsdale. That mark would stand for nearly 58 years until Grinnell’s Jack Taylor – aided by 27 3-pointers – went for 138 points in 2012. But Francis still owns the No. 2 highest-scoring game in college basketball history. Also Nos. 7, 8, 17 and 25. His 46.5 scoring average in 1953-54 remains atop of the list, ahead of Pete Maravich.

One of Francis’ early games at Rio Grande, the attendance was 62, and the gate receipts were $19.20.By the end, the gross one night was $34,500, and the Redmen had played before more than 240,000 people in two years. Then suddenly, it was over.

There had been growing estrangement between Oliver and Rio Grande administrators and faculty, who feared the school was becoming known as a basketball factory, with too little emphasis on the academic mission. Not that they minded the money, for there were bills to pay.

"I do know this is true fact," said current athletic director Jeff Lanham. "Coach Oliver, when he’d go play away games, would always work out a guarantee and bring that money back, and it would help pay the faculty and help pay the administration. That itself says maybe it did save the college."

It was about this period that the school also sold some of its adjacent farmland to an eager young future sausage-maker named Bob Evans. The original Bob Evans restaurant sat just across the road. A modern one is there now.

Both Oliver and Francis left Rio Grande in 1954, the dream gone sour. "I don’t think anybody knew how to accept it," Jean Francis said of the raging fame. "The school was near closing. I don’t think anybody knew just how to handle it."

The nation’s attention quickly moved elsewhere, and the sensation of Rio Grande receded like a wave from the beach. Francis toured with the Harlem Globetrotters for two years – playing for the team that was their nightly fodder.

When he was eligible for the NBA draft in 1956, the Philadelphia Warriors picked him and offered $10,000. But Bevo just wanted to go home and figured he could make more than that working in the steel mill. So he did. The mill would be his life.

"Until the day he died, he was a just a country boy," Lanham said. "He loved to go coon hunting, rabbit hunting. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the bright lights."

But certainly he must have regretted it, a man who captivated a game so, never taking a crack at the NBA?

"I truly don’t think he ever did," Jean said. "Because he was small town USA."

Francis used the Globetrotters' salary to buy a seven-room brick house for his family in Highlandtown, Ohio, in the eastern fringe of the state. Though the youthful road of Clarence and Jean Francis seemed like the recipe for a doomed marriage – wed as teenagers, parents too soon – they stayed together in that same home for six decades. She always called him Frank -- never, ever Bevo -- and his glory days were not a frequent topic of dinner table conversation. "I doubt if his kids even knew who he was," she said, "until somebody else told them."

They were closing in on 64 years of marriage when he died of cancer at 82.

Which brings us to the past weekend, and the first Bevo Francis Tournament without him. Included in the crowd was Oliver, who turns 92 on Christmas.

Oliver and his star long ago made up with Rio Grande. Francis fell in love with the school anew and made repeated visits. Once, at Lanham’s request, he passed out awards at the conference track meet. "I think it really needed to happen," Jean said of the reconciliation.

So they paused last weekend to remember the gangly scorer who once upon a time brought the world to this wilderness. Whose shadow still falls upon the hills here.

You can hear that from the current coach. "It is a story that is true and is real, but there’s that fictional aspect to it," French said. "How did he become such a superstar, a massive representative of college basketball, how did he get the recognition . . . from here?

"When we recruit kids – I don’t know if this is a positive or a negative – but we tell them, `You’re not going to be the school’s all-time leading scorer. It’s not going to happen. So if that’s one of your goals, mark that off your list."'

You can hear it from the Rio Grande native who first met Francis in a pickup football game on campus. "There’s one thing people don’t understand," Evans said. "You don’t get guys giving up the ball enough for a guy to average 50 points a game to a horse’s ass. Bevo had the kind of personality that that stuff didn’t mean much to him. If he had been a horse’s ass, this would never have happened because they would not have wanted to give the ball up."

You can hear it from the grandkids, sitting in the stands, watching students born more than four decades after the time of Bevo, forming his 32.

"It means his story is still living. But it should be told more often, besides just here," said granddaughter Sarah.

"It’s an honor. They’re doing it for granddad," said grandson Jarrod. "That’s the biggest thing, the respect. They didn’t know my granddad. They know what he did. It’s all hearsay to them, but they’ve bought into it."

That old cliché about bouncing your grandchildren on your knee and telling them the great things you did when you were young? Bevo Francis never did.

Sarah: "He never really talked about it. He was a very humble man."

Jarrod: "He would answer your question if you had it, but he wasn’t going to bring it up in conversation."

Occasionally he would play his grandkids in basketball. It might as well been against Hillsdale again. Bevo valued playing hard to win. So how'd that go for the kids?

"Not very good. There was no winning for me," Jarrod said. "You realized after that what he was teaching you, and cherished it a little more. He was teaching you life lessons."

Sarah agreed. "He never let me win. He would block all my shots, but he made me better." Sarah played organized basketball and came to Rio Grande hoping to break her grandfather’s record, but did not get much playing time. She wore No. 20.

You can hear it from his widow. Jean Francis recently had a mastectomy. She found a lump long before, but would not do anything while she was tending for her ill husband. Only one sick person in the house at a time, she decided.

She said the years at Rio grew very important to her husband as time went by. "He was always a private person. I don’t think anybody understood that. Newt was making this story, and the boys were just writing it. I didn’t even think the adults understood what was happening, let alone the kids."

"You didn’t understand then it would live on forever."

Or at least through 2015, because you can hear it from the current players. Take Dwayne Bazemore, a big 6-10 guy and good scorer himself.

"He’s the one that paved the way for all of us," Bazemore said. "We all play for Bevo."

Those years are such ancient history, but the sheer scoring numbers can still awe the 21st century generation. "They’re crazy. Like, how did he do that? How?" Bazemore said. "I would love to take 40 shots a game. I wish I was Bevo."

You can even hear it from the women’s basketball coach at Rio Grande. Years ago, David Smalley came across an old-style scoreboard that had been tossed away by a high school, had it spruced up, and placed on the wall of Newt Oliver Arena, forever commemorating the 113-point game. Bevo agreed, with one demand. The names of all his teammates had to be included. So they are, attached at the bottom.

Inside the scoreboard are four pages of the Bevo Francis story, written by Smalley, for the future to one day find and read. So goes the wish of modern-day Rio Grande, the little school that for one shining moment long ago, was so big.

Time marches on, even here. That old apartment is now a parking lot, the Rio Grande fine arts building stands on the site of the Hog Pen. And Bevo is gone.

"The scary thing is, we’re losing a lot of those people who remember," Smalley said. "We don’t want this story to ever go away."

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