- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

We don’t know whether the groundhog saw his shadow on the morning of Feb.2, 1954, in Punxsutawney, Pa., but we may be sure that Hillsdale College’s basketball team saw enough of Bevo Francis that evening in southeastern Ohio.

Fifty years ago tonight, the 6-foot-9 junior center scored 113 points for little Rio Grande — still an NCAA record — and it wasn’t even his best game.

The previous season, Francis scored 116 points against Ashland, Ky., in the midst of a 39-0 season for Rio (pronounced RYE-oh) Grande, which had four buildings and 94 students when he went there in 1951. But the NAIA and NCAA refused to recognize that apparent record because the Bobcats played too many junior colleges and bible schools.

So Francis had to do it all over again, and nearly did, 13 months later.

“And they didn’t have the 3-point shot and 1-and-1 fouls back then,” Francis noted several years ago. “Somebody put that game in a computer and figured out that under those rules, I would have had 164 points. And I probably could have averaged 65 points.”

Let’s not be greedy, Bevo baby.

Bevo Francis was one of those shooting stars (literally) who flashed briefly across the sky and then disappeared in the days before widespread TV sports coverage and cable highlights. He played two seasons at Rio Grande before flunking out of school. When the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors drafted him in 1956, he nixed their contract offer of $10,000 “because I can make more being a steelworker.”

Yet Francis remains at least in the mental back room of old-time fans, and he should. Not only does he hold the NCAA single-game scoring mark, his season average of 48.3 in 1952-53 remains a record.

Francis didn’t stand under the basket and dunk over smaller defenders. He was that rarest of basketball specimens, a big man who could score from anywhere on the court. In his two triple-digit games, he fired away with abandon whenever the mood struck — which it obviously did often.

“He was one of the greatest shooters who ever lived,” NBA scouting director Marty Blake said. “It was a gift. He could not only shoot but shoot with range.”

It’s particularly unfortunate that Francis didn’t join the Warriors in ‘56 — instead he signed with the Harlem Globetrotters and played on one of the traveling teams that served as their foils — because just three years later Philadelphia drafted future Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. The brain boggles at the thought of two 100-point scorers on the same team (Wilt, of course, hit the century mark for an NBA record in 1962), though probably no court could have contained them both.

Francis, whose real moniker was Clarence, inherited his nickname from his dad, a clay miner and farmer who liked Bevo, a near-beer bottled by Anheuser-Busch. The boy was known as Little Bevo for a while, but the first word disappeared when his teenage growth spurt kicked in.

Francis became a gym rat who practiced his jump shot as much as eight hours a day. But he was ruled ineligible to play as a high school freshman because of controversy surrounding his transfer from another school to Wellsville (Ohio). Some said his parents had been given a house in town to entice them to move.

As a sophomore, he remained ineligible because of an administrative error. When he made his debut as a junior, however, he was something to see. His coach, Newt Oliver, gave him uniform No.32 because that’s what he expected Francis to average. Francis came close, scoring at a 30.6 clip as Wellsville finished 23-2. But he missed his senior season because he reached 20 before it started, ending his scholastic eligibility.

Oliver knew something about scoring; in 1947-48, he led the nation while playing for Rio Grande. When he became coach at his alma mater, Oliver brought Francis with him — surprise, surprise! — after making sure Francis enrolled at the local high school to gain the 1 credits he needed to graduate. The ambitious coach put together a schedule full of lower-level teams to ensure Francis would stand out, and the strategy worked big-time.

A few nights after his 116-point outburst against Ashland Junior College in January 1953, Francis scored 51 against Bliss College to break the NCAA seasonal record set the previous year by Seattle’s Johnny O’Brien. Later he hit for 68 against Mountain State Junior College as fans flocked to see the game’s newest wonder.

Francis finished that season with 1,954 points and a 50.1 average before the NCAA reduced both marks along with the 116-point spree by discounting games against opponents who failed to meet its standards. So Oliver changed his strategy. For the 1953-54 season, he scheduled 27 of 28 games against NCAA members, all on the road.

On Dec. 3, Rio Grande’s two-year winning streak ended at 40 with an 83-76 loss to Adelphi at Madison Square Garden in which Francis was held to four points in the second half and a total of 32. Huffed New York sports columnist Jimmy Breslin of Rio Grande’s previous success: “Their humiliating [victories] against nonentities is a travesty on the entire structure of intercollegiate athletics.”

Francis’ slump was temporary. He recovered to score 39 against Villanova, 41 against Providence and 48 against Miami (Fla.) as the multitudes gawked. Then came the 113-point game at a nearby high school gym. Despite being guarded at times by three players, Francis made 38 of 70 shots from the field and 37 of 45 from the foul line as Hillsdale fouled frequently in vain attempts to halt his assault. Both his field goals and free throws remain NCAA records.

At season’s end, he had scored 1,255 points in 28 games (44.8) for Rio Grande’s 21-7 team and was named to the Associated Press All-America second team. Then he went home to his wife, Jean, and their two children.

Over his two college seasons, Francis averaged 47.1, had 84- and 82-point games, scored 50 or more 14 times and outscored the opposing team nine times. Eleven days after Francis’ 113-point game, Furman’s Frank Selvy erupted for 100 against Newberry. No college player has reached the century mark since.

After playing minor league pro ball briefly, Francis began loading trucks in an Ohio steel plant and kept doing so until he retired. Now, at 73, he lives with Jean in the same house in Highlandtown, Ohio, they bought in 1954. Probably only his family and close friends know, or care, what a big basketball deal Bevo Francis was half a century ago.

“I wasn’t a singer or a movie star,” he said nearly five decades later, “but there was a time when everybody in the country knew my name.”

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