The new coach had big dreams. On the first day of practice Oliver told his gathered squad, "One year from now we'll be booked into Madison Square Garden." To which Wiseman replied, "The only garden we'll ever be in is with a hoe."
Oliver's promises did indeed seem ludicrous. The home court of the Rio Grande Redmen was a drafty little bandbox named Community Hall but called the Hog Pen by students. It had room for 250 souls. "No seats in it," recalls Francis. "Tile floor laid over concrete. A bucket on each end. Cold in the winter. And there weren't any showers."
Between games Maxine and Jean washed the team's uniforms in the apartment bathtub, and Newt often paid for the gas to fuel the two team station wagons for road games. But Oliver did dip into the school's meager funds and extracted $25 to join the NCAA's statistical service, thereby assuring that the team's stats—Bevo's stats, that is—appeared in the weekly summaries.
However weak the Redmen's schedule, which Oliver had inherited, only the most myopic reader of the NCAA stat sheet could ignore the fancy numbers that Francis started hanging up—58 points against Sue Bennett College in Kentucky, 69 against Wilberforce, 72 against California State, 76 against Lees College. There was a faint buzzing of interest as his totals began rolling in, and on occasion a distant sports desk would call the school to ask, "What's a Bevo Francis?"
And then, on a January night in 1953, the world changed for Bevo and Newt and Rio Grande when the wires started clacking out the news from Community Hall. The walls of the Hog Pen had echoed that evening with the exhortations of Oliver, who kept bellowing from the bench, "Foul 'em! Foul 'em!" He wanted the clock stopped at every opportunity to get possession of the ball, so that Bevo, who was potting 10 and 12 jumpers at a stretch without missing, could climb the national bell tower and swing on the clapper for little Rio Grande. Has there ever been a performance more sublime than Bevo's in the final quarter against Ashland? He scored 55 points in its 10 minutes. "Everything he threw up went in," recalls Rio Grande forward Roy Moses, a retired teacher. "And these weren't layups."
Just that quickly Bevo and the Redmen had stepped through the looking glass. In the public mind Rio Grande was no longer some desiccated, windswept campus somewhere on the outskirts of El Paso, but rather this quaint crook in the road in tree-mantled Ohio. Suddenly national magazine photographers were prowling the grounds, and film crews were setting up cameras, and reporters were reconnoitering the buildings. The phones rang at all hours. Oliver, of course, was in heaven; but each night, Bevo and Jean put their infant son, Frank, to sleep and shuddered, waiting for the jangle of the next call.
"You didn't have a life of your own," Bevo says. "It was nothing for people to call at two or three in the morning. I'd get up, and Jean would make me breakfast—I had a seven o'clock class—and I'd get home and there would be reporters and photographers waiting there, and Jean would have to make me breakfast again so they could take pictures. Or they'd wake up Frank and say, 'Get the kid up. We need a picture of you and the kid.' It seemed like every time we moved they took our picture."
Francis became that newest American species, the morning TV celebrity, when the Today show, starring Dave Garroway, flew Newt and Bevo to New York to meet America. Bevo then made his evening television debut when he was introduced on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Back in Ohio, long lines formed for Rio Grande games. The team had outgrown the Hog Pen, and all but one of the Redmen's remaining home games had been shifted to bigger arenas on the road. Opponents, now challenged by Francis's exploits and fearing humiliation at his hands, did everything possible to stop him, folding him deliberately the moment he touched the ball, bringing boos cascading from the stands.
The plotting against him reached its most farcical when Rio Grande played Cedarville in Troy, Ohio. Cedarville stalled from the outset, refusing to shoot the ball, and soon the record crowd of 7,451 spectators, drawn to see Bevo perform, began roaring, stomping their feet and pelting the floor with coins and crumpled paper cups. Play was halted; in the interlude a group of Redmen players sat on the bench playing cards while Francis did a radio interview and then signed autographs for fans. But Oliver feared a riot was in the making, as well as a small economic disaster. The gate was nearly $10,000—Rio Grande's share was $6,500—and the crowd was threatening to leave and demand its money back. Oliver fumed at the Cedarville team to cease this sham. It took the intervention of the Cedarville athletic director to convince his coach to play the game at full tempo. Rio Grande won 66-29, and Bevo had 38 points.