College hoops’ unlikely scoring king — for more than 50 years
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.”
One of the earliest practitioners of the jump shot, Bevo Francis takes air for Rio Grande College in a 1954 tournament.