A Conversation with Kyle Kiederling, Author of Shooting Star, The Bevo Francis Story
by Adam Shandler
If I asked you who scored 113 points in one college game, would you be able to give me the answer? Here are a few hints: it wasn’t Wilt, it wasn’t Russell and it wasn’t Alcindor. That record, which still stands today, belongs to Bevo Francis, a lanky Ohio farm boy who put tiny Rio Grande College (Not REE-oh, but RYE-oh, not Texas but Ohio) on the map and brought college basketball fans back to a game that was injured by scandal in the early 1950’s.
Francis’s story is not all Hoosiers and Hoop Dreams. It’s part lovable, part tragic. In the 1952-53 season, for instance, Bevo actually averaged over 48 points a game and scored 116 in one of them.
While those marks still stand in the NAIA record books, they were vaporized by the NCAA because they came against institutions not recognized by the organization. But that was just the half of Bevo’s problems. Newt Oliver – the only coach Bevo ever had in high school or college – was a barnstorming overpromoter, who his star player came to resent over the years. This could very well be the first documented, glaring case of a coach exploiting a college basketball player for his own personal gain.
In this edition of Conversations With Adam, I speak with Kyle Kiederling, basketball enthusiast, former stock market radio show host and author of Shooting Star: The Bevo Francis Story, about one of college hoops’ first Cinderella stories.
Adam Shandler: What was it about the Bevo Francis story that inspired you to write this book?
Kyle Kiederling: It was a great human interest story of Americana and I was fascinated with it when I was ten years old. I guess the story just stayed with me. When researching Bevo and writing the book I found it interesting how this spectacle who so dominated the sport could become a difficult answer to a trivia question. You don’t hear about Bevo Francis anymore, but for two years he was a fascinating story.
AS: Why don’t we hear Bevo Francis mentioned in the same breath as Chamberlin, Russell, and Oscar Robertson when talking about prolific college scorers?
KK: I think it’s quite simply the coach he had at the time and the methods that coach used to promote Bevo and tiny Rio Grande College. Newt Oliver left a bitter taste in the mouth of the NCAA. He was seen as a P.T. Barnum-type with this trumped-up sideshow. The way Bevo was presented by his coach was the underlying reason he became a less-mentioned player.
Bevo was also under wraps not to play defense (for fear Newt Oliver’s star player would foul out), and he got criticism in the media for that. But he could shoot. He was a pure shooter. People who saw him, played against him, said he was the purest shooter they ever saw.
AS:So did Newt Oliver make Bevo Francis’s career, or did he simply exploit him?
KK: It’s really interesting. There’s a part of the book where there’s a line from Newt that says, “I made Bevo Francis what he is today.” Newt would tell you, “I am first and foremost a promoter.” But what was he promoting? Was it Bevo? Was it tiny Rio Grande, his alma mater? Newt Oliver was a great promoter. But other coaches will tell you he exploited Bevo’s talent. I make no judgments about that in the book. Newt had a plan, and the plan worked. Newt believed he did what was best for Bevo and for Rio Grande. The school was going into bankruptcy at the time he brought Bevo in.
Bevo feels he was exploited, and for twenty-some years he and Newt didn’t talk.
AS: At the time of this story, a dark cloud was hanging over college basketball with the betting scandals of 1951. Did Bevo Francis save the sport?
KK: That’s the part of the story that interested me the most. The country was very distrustful at that time. We had the Communist scare with McCarthyism, it was the beginning of the Cold War, we were fighting in Korea. College basketball mirrored the mood of the country.
Absolutely, Bevo Francis will not just be remembered as a guy who set a flock of records. He rescued Rio Grande, a tiny school with only 94 students that now gives 4,000 students the opportunity to get a college education. The team lay the gritty gravel sub-base that is the road to the Final Four. Interest in college basketball was reeling and this story saved college basketball.
Alex Severance, who once coached Villanova, said that Bevo Francis and Rio Grande were to college hoops what Ruth and Gehrig were to baseball after the [1919 Chicago] Black Sox scandal.
AS: People seem to love guys who break scoring records and Bevo’s record of 113 points in one college game is a record that still stands. Did the book gain any momentum when J.J. Redick took over the ACC scoring title this year?
KK: It’s kind of funny; when Kobe [Bryant] scored all his points I got a lot of calls about that. But Bevo’s story is mostly compared to Wilt Chamberlin’s scoring record. Bevo won’t be remembered as the guy who scored all those points, but for the thousands of kids who are getting an education at Rio Grande. When Newt Oliver came to the school and told his team that they’d be playing at Madison Square Garden, the players all thought he was stark raving mad. But they bought into it. And they did play at the Garden. This school of only 94 kids playing bigger teams like N.C. State, Miami, and Creighton showed America that if you believe in yourself, you can do anything.
AS: What’s Bevo Francis up to now?
KK: Fishing, enjoying his children and his grandchildren. He lives in the same house that he bought with his Globetrotters money. (In 1954, Francis signed with the Boston Whirlwinds, one of the Globetrotters’ foil teams.)
AS: Did he enjoy the book and all the attention his story has been getting as a result?
KK: Bevo doesn’t like publicity. He’d rather have root canal without anesthesia. It’s his life, and these were not pleasant memories for him. Bevo Francis was not treated well by basketball. It didn’t make him rich, but many will say that he enriched basketball.
For more information about Kyle Kiederling and Shooting Star: The Bevo Francis Story, visit www.bevofrancis.com.