Col­lege hoops’ un­likely scor­ing king — for more than 50 years

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY MATT SCHUDEL matt.schudel@wash­post.com

In the 1950s, a lanky bas­ket­ball player named Bevo Fran­cis be­came one of the most un­likely cult he­roes in sports his­tory. He played at tiny Rio Grande Col­lege in Ohio and, over a two-year pe­riod, broke one scor­ing record af­ter an­other.

When his 116-point game in 1953 was erased from the record books be­cause of an ad­min­is­tra­tive rul­ing, Mr. Fran­cis came back the next year to score 113 points. His record stood for more than 50 years.

Mr. Fran­cis, called “the most pe­cu­liarly in­trigu­ing bas­ket­ball player of all time” by for­mer Chicago Tri­bune colum­nist Bob Greene, died June 3 at hishomein Sa­lineville, Ohio. He was 82.

His death was an­nounced by his for­mer school, now called the Uni­ver­sity of Rio Grande. The cause was esophageal can­cer.

Mr. Fran­cis played just one year of high school bas­ket­ball, fol­low­ing his coach to Rio Grande (pro­nounced RYE-oh Grand) in 1952. At the time, the col­lege in south­east­ern Ohio had 94 stu­dents and was about to close its doors.

Eleven of the 38 men en­rolled at the col­lege were on the bas­ket­ball team. Al­most all of them, in­clud­ing Mr. Fran­cis, were raw­boned farm boys. They played in a di­lap­i­dated gym called the Hog Pen.

The pre­vi­ous year, the Rio Grande Red­men had a record of 4-19. Un­der a new coach, Newt Oliver, the team adopted a new style of of­fense, best sum­ma­rized by a two-word com­mand the coach of­ten shouted from the bench: “Feed Bevo!”

Mr. Fran­cis was a gaunt 6-foot-9 and 195 pounds, but he had honed a re­mark­able shoot­ing touch dur­ing long hours of prac­tice in the fam­ily hayloft. He was among the first play­ers of his era to mas­ter the jump shot, and he could sink hook shots from more than 20 feet.

With Bevo, Rio Grande be­gan to win, and win big. Mr. Fran­cis of­ten outscored en­tire teams. On Jan. 9, 1953, he scored 116 points against Ash­land Ju­nior Col­lege of Ken­tucky, a team that had trounced Rio Grande in the past.

By sea­son’s end, Mr. Fran­cis had com­piled a scor­ing av­er­age of 50.1 points per game, as his team fin­ished 39-0 — still the most vic­to­ries of any un­de­feated men’s team in col­lege his­tory.

The coun­try caught Bevo­ma­nia, and Mr. Fran­cis be­came known as “the most cel­e­brated col­lege gun­ner of his day,” in the words of Sports Il­lus­trated writer Wil­liam Nack.

But un­der pres­sure from ma­jor-col­lege coaches, the NCAA ruled that Rio Grande’s games against ju­nior col­leges didn’t count. The “Bevo rule” meant that Mr. Fran­cis’s 116-point game was nul­li­fied, re­duc­ing his scor­ing av­er­age to 48.3 points per game. (The Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of In­ter­col­le­giate Ath­let­ics, the gov­ern­ing body of small col­leges, still rec­og­nizes the higher fig­ure.)

Oliver, the Rio Grande coach, was in­censed. He de­cided to take on the big boys on their own turf the next year and sched­uled 28 games, all on the road, against top com­pe­ti­tion. Rio Grande’s first game was be­fore 14,000 peo­ple at Madi­son Square Gar­den in New York City. From there, it was on to Philadel­phia, Bos­ton and Miami.

Mr. Fran­cis be­came a me­dia sen­sa­tion, ap­pear­ing on TVs “To­day” and “The Ed Sul­li­van Show,” as well as in Life mag­a­zine.

“We were the hottest thing in Amer­ica,” Oliver, the coach, told the Colum­bus Dis­patch in 2002. “It was com­pletely a Cin­derella sit­u­a­tion. Peo­ple used to line up for blocks to see us play when we came to town.”

In Jan­uary 1954, Mr. Fran­cis set a col­le­giate record by scor­ing 84 points in a game against Al­liance Col­lege. Two weeks later, on Feb. 2, against Hills­dale Col­lege of Michi­gan, he had 74 points at the be­gin­ning of the fourth quar­ter.

Guarded by three and some­times four play­ers, he seem­ingly could not miss. He turned in midair to make twist­ing jump shots; he sank hook shots from the top of the key. He made 38 field goals and 37 of 45 free throws to fin­ish with 113 points as Rio Grande won, 134-91. This time, the record counted. Mr. Fran­cis av­er­age 46.5 points per game that year, still the high­est of­fi­cial av­er­age in NCAA his­tory. (In the 1969-1970 sea­son, Pete Mar­avich of Louisiana State Uni­ver­sity scored 44.5 points per game to set the mark for larger schools, clas­si­fied as Di­vi­sion I by the NCAA.)

“He was one of the great­est shoot­ers that ever lived,” Marty Blake, the Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion’s for­mer direc­tor of scout­ing, told Sports Il­lus­trated in 1992. “It was a gift.”

Then, as sud­denly as the Bevo show be­gan, it was over. Mr. Fran­cis, who had missed many classes while trav­el­ing to play bas­ket­ball, was ex­pelled for aca­demic de­fi­cien­cies.

“I’m still bit­ter about it,” Oliver, the coach, said in 1992. “Lit­tle peo­ple in a lit­tle in­sti­tu­tion. They cut us down in our prime.”

Af­ter com­pil­ing a two-year record of 60-7, Oliver and Mr. Fran­cis left Rio Grande to join a trav­el­ing team that of­ten faced the Har­lem Glo­be­trot­ters. In 1956, Mr. Fran­cis turned down an of­fer from the NBA’s Philadel­phia War­riors, then played in smaller pro leagues for a few years be­fore re­turn­ing to Ohio.

His 113-point record stood un­til 2012, when Jack Tay­lor of Grin­nell Col­lege in Iowa scored 138 points. Tay­lor made 27 three­p­oint shots, which were not part of the rule book when Mr. Fran­cis played. With­out them, Tay­lor would have fin­ished with 111 points, two fewer than Mr. Fran­cis scored in 1954.

Clarence Franklin Fran­cis was born Sept. 4, 1932, in Ham­mondsville, Ohio. His fa­ther worked in a clay mine.

The nick­name Bevo (pro­nounced BEE-voh) de­rived from a Prohibition-era brand of near beer that Mr. Fran­cis’s fa­ther liked.

Mr. Fran­cis had ane­mia dur­ing child­hood and missed al­most two years of school. He grew to 6-9 be­fore he was 18 and was al­ready mar­ried and a fa­ther by the time he en­tered col­lege at age 20.

Sur­vivors in­clude his wife, Jean Chris­lip Fran­cis; two chil­dren; a sis­ter; and three grand­chil­dren.

Af­ter his bas­ket­ball fame, Mr. Fran­cis worked as a truck driver, in a steel mill and in var­i­ous fac­to­ries.

“I wasn’t a singer or movie star,” Mr. Fran­cis once told ESPN, “but there was a time when ev­ery­one in the coun­try knew my name. They did know Bevo.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

One of the ear­li­est prac­ti­tion­ers of the jump shot, Bevo Fran­cis takes air for Rio Grande Col­lege in a 1954 tour­na­ment.

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