From February, 2, 1954 to March 13, 2012.
Any way you look at it, it’s a long time to wait.
- 58 years, 1 month, 12 days
- 3032 weeks (rounded down)
- 21,225 days
- 509,400 hours
- 30,564,000 minutes
- 1,833,840,000 seconds
That wait is almost over for Bevo Francis.
Next March 3rd, Francis will be inducted into the The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) 2011-12 Hall of Fame. I was thrilled to get the news this month from NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament Director John McCarthy. Francis will be recognized for meritorious service, including the 113 points he scored for the Rio Grande (Ohio) College Redmen in a basketball game against Hillsdale College (Michigan).
Bevo’s scoring mark remains the highest single game scoring effort of any college basketball player. Francis also holds the NCAA and NAIA records for highest average points scored per game. He averaged more than 47 points a game during the 1953-54 season.
The Rio Redmen helped restore the game of college basketball after a point-shaving scandal in 1950 and 1951 involving many of America’s top college basketball teams. “College basketball was playing to a sea of empty seats,” former ABC Sports Anchor Dave Diles told me. “Nobody cared about it. It had been stained so badly.”
Criminal charges were filed against dozens of players and the point shavers themselves. The scandal sent fans running for the exits and sent college basketball into a tailspin.
The Rio Redmen helped bring the fans back. They did it by playing hard and winning against opponents with a style that was all their own. They proved that pedigree matters little if you outplay your opponent.
If you ask Francis, he’ll tell you his scoring record wasn’t the most important thing in his life. It didn’t then. It doesn’t now.
“I couldn’t have done it without my teammates,” said Francis in an interview for the documentary I produced a couple of years ago about his amazing team. “What matters to me is my family and my friends.”
Francis and his teammates came from impoverished backgrounds. They and their families survived by working the farms, mines and the steel mills that dotted the Appalachian hill country of southeast Ohio. A century ago the editors of the New York Times described the people who lived in Appalachia thusly: “The majority of mountain people are unprincipled ruffians. There are two remedies only: education or extermination. The mountaineer, like the red Indian, must learn this lesson.”
In reality, then and now, Appalachians are one of the most misunderstood, exploited, impoverished and politically disfranchised groups in America.
“If you’ve never had dirt under your nails. If you’ve never heard your belly growling,” Diles said. “There’s a hunger that comes from that, that privileged people can’t understand.”
All the former Redmen players I met have stayed married to the same women they met, or were already wed to in college.
They helped raise their families. They had productive careers as steelworkers, coaches, teachers and businessmen. Through good times and bad, they’ve also stayed in touch with each other and the college they attended.
Mostly, they all understood there are no shortcuts to success…or happiness. Their success came through hard work and perseverance both on and off the basketball court.
Less than 100 students enrolled at Rio Grande College when Clarence “Bevo” Francis first strolled onto the southeast Ohio campus in 1952.
Rio Grande was about to go bankrupt. It would have had not the Redmen barnstormed across the region, playing any team they could that first season to raise money to pay the faculty.
The team went 39-0. Francis obliterated almost every existing NCAA scoring record.
The Redmen brought in 25 percent of their college’s revenues during the two years they played together. It was enough to keep Rio Grande College open and faculty paychecks from bouncing.
“I think it helped make enough money to help the professors so that they didn’t close it down,” former Rio Redman guard Jim McKenzie told me. “They were in the process of doing so.”
After the first season was over, skeptical NCAA coaches met in Kansas City, Missouri and passed a new rule. The new rule only recognized scoring records against four year degree granting institutions.
Before the rule’s passage, the NCAA had accepted scoring records against two year junior colleges and technical schools who made up many of Rio Grande’s traditional rivals.
For the first time in NCAA history, the new rule was retroactively applied to Rio Grande. It stripped the college of 27 of victories and Bevo Francis of almost all his scoring records.
“We were the hottest thing in America,” said former Rio Redmen coach Newt Oliver. “Nothing compared with us and the big schools they resented that.”
It wasn’t fair, but it was reality.
The Redmen channeled their anger into something they could control. The next season, the Rio Redmen scheduled all but one of their 28 games against colleges that met the new, tougher NCAA rule.
The team played almost every game on the road because their college gymnasium, dubbed the “hog pen,” was too small and broken down to accommodate paying spectators. All of the Redmen’s college competition came from larger colleges and universities.
That didn’t stop the Redmen from winning, or Bevo Francis from reclaiming his scoring records. The Redmen went 21-7 that 53-54 season. They beat the likes of Providence, Bradley, Creighton, Miami of Florida and defending Atlantic Coast Conference champion Wake Forest.
The ticket revenues the team earned allowed Rio Grande College to continue giving poor Appalachian students an educational path out of poverty.
The Redmen might have done even better had Francis not finished the season playing on a badly sprained ankle. Francis still averaged 47 points a game that season and torched the nets for that record setting 113 point game against Hillsdale College.
The Redmen won through hard work and hours of practice. Four and five hour daily shooting, passing and scrimmage sessions were the rule under hard nosed coach Newt Oliver. You shoot, you miss, you lose. Make a pass, hit the shot, play better defense, you win.
Bevo Francis was never comfortable with the idea of overshadowing his teammates. But when he stepped on a basketball court, his talent couldn’t be ignored or stopped.
“Whenever I was out on the floor I couldn’t tell you if there was 10 people or 10,000 people,” said Francis. “That’s one thing. I was never a grandstand player. Went out there to play the game to win. And to win that made me feel like I was free.”
Former Redmen coach Newt Oliver put it best: “You can be well known and they forget about you in a year of two. If you’re legendary like we are, they’ll never forget you.”
Bevo Francis will be be inducted at the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship in Kansas City, Mo. next March 13th.
After 57 years, Newt Oliver’s finally been proven right.