Sanderson Smith of Carpinteria perked up at the news that Grinnell College guard Jack Taylor scored 138 points in his team’s 179-104 victory over Faith Baptist Bible last week to set a new NCAA basketball scoring record. The numbers are astonishing — Taylor put up 108 shots, making 52, including 27 three-pointers — but as far as Smith is concerned, the performance is a mere footnote to the legend of Bevo Francis and the Redmen of Rio Grande College.
“To this day, I continue to believe that the Rio Grande story is the greatest of all American sports stories,” Smith asserted. “There is much more to it than just Bevo’s scoring feats.” It was Francis’s record of 113 points, scored in Rio Grande’s 1954 game against Hillsdale College, that Taylor shattered. “It was bound to happen,” said Smith, surprised, if anything, that it took almost 59 years.
Smith was a high school athlete in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, when the exploits of Rio Grande’s hoopsters captivated the nation. They were the ultimate underdogs, coming out of a tiny college in southern Ohio, where they practiced in a leaky gym known as the Hog Pen. With only 38 male students, Rio Grande was on the brink of closing when basketball coach Newt Oliver built a team around Francis, a country boy who had good size (6’9”) and considerable shooting skills.
“Oliver’s idea was to put the school on the map,” Smith said. “He said, ‘We’re going to get this guy attention — give it to Bevo.’ And they did.” Francis had a 116-point game in his freshman year, but it came against a junior college and was not recognized by the NCAA. After that season, when the Redmen went 39-0, they upgraded their schedule and played major colleges all around the country. They beat Butler, Wake Forest, and Creighton. They played in Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden, where they defeated Providence. Rio Grande finished the 1953-54 season with a 21-7 record. Francis compiled a 47.1 scoring average in NCAA games.
It all made a lasting impression on young Smith, who might not otherwise have been excited about college basketball, because betting scandals had tainted the sport. He never saw the Redmen play in person or on television, but he was enthralled by newspaper accounts describing their David-versus-Goliath adventures. “The Rio Grande story was refreshing,” Smith said. “Those guys saved their school from going under.”
It is now the University of Rio Grande (pronounced “Rye-o Grand” by Ohioans). Smith stepped onto the campus for the only time in November of 2000. Then a longtime mathematics teacher at Cate School, he was enlisted to be the keynote speaker at a banquet preceding the Bevo Francis Classic basketball tournament. Members of the 1952-54 teams were present for a reunion. Smith had never met them before; he had no connection with them other than his ingrained admiration of their story, which he had expressed in a letter, which was read by the Rio Grande athletic director, who told Smith if he didn’t live more than 2,000 miles away, he’d invite him to speak at the banquet — to which the Carpinteria pedagogue responded: “I’ll be there.”
“I had goose bumps rolling into that little town,” Smith said. He had spent weeks composing his speech. He looked out over the heroes of his youth’s imagination — he knew every player by name, not just Francis — and he said, “I would walk 10 miles to meet the men who are present in this room today, before I would walk 10 feet to meet the Los Angeles Lakers.” He thanked them for being his lifelong inspiration “when my weaker side was saying, ‘It can’t be done.’”
Smith, 74, retired from full-time teaching in 2004 after 40 years at Cate. He relived his Rio Grande experience recently when Don Vyhnalek, one of the Redmen, sent him a note and photos from the team’s 60th reunion. Bevo Francis was there. He’s 80 now. Smith recalls meeting him 12 years ago. “He was rather humble, a very nice fellow. He gave credit to his teammates.” After leaving school in 1954, Francis drifted into obscurity. Thanks to Grinnell’s Taylor, the Rio Grande star’s name and his 113-point game — accomplished without three-point baskets — flashed into the news again. Sanderson Smith can tell you the rest of the story.
UNDEFEATED: Much to the disappointment of the sizeable USC constituency in Santa Barbara, the Fighting Irish muffled the echoes of 1964 — when an undefeated, No. 1 Notre Dame team was upset by the unranked Trojans — and completed a 12-0 regular season by winning Saturday’s showdown at the L.A. Coliseum, 22-13.
It was a beautiful night for Santa Barbara residents Thelma Maitland, the mother of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly; and Scott Grimes, a junior student manager for the Irish whose lifelong friend Bryson Lloyd was a long snapper for the Trojans.
“Threes are okay, as long as they add up,” said Maitland, referring to the five field goals that accounted for the bulk of Notre Dame’s scoring. Three also is the number of years that her son has coached the Irish. “It takes him three years to build up a team,” she said. The heart of Kelly’s team is a rock-solid defense, led by senior linebacker Manti Te’o. “Manti winning the Heisman Trophy would top the year off,” Maitland said. “He is such a good person.”
To me, the defensive standout of the game was Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell. The late goal-line stand, which will go down in Notre Dame lore, was started when Russell dragged down USC’s sensational receiver Marqise Lee at the two-yard line. Russell subsequently broke up two passes to Lee in the end zone. He was flagged for interference, but they were smart plays; each prevented a touchdown. Russell also intercepted a long pass intended for Lee in the first half.
“KeiVarae has saved us from multiple touchdowns with his tackles,” said Grimes, who monitored the action in the pressbox with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching staff. “It was pretty intense up there,” he said.
Grimes had a reunion with Lloyd before the game and saw him briefly afterward. The senior center, a former all-county tight end at Santa Barbara High, did his job, with clean snaps on USC’s two field goals and PAT. “He was kind of sad about the loss,” Grimes said. “I think the difference was that we played more as a team.”
The Irish had little time to celebrate at the scene. “We boarded our flight back to South Bend around 11 [p.m.],” Grimes said. “I was back in my dorm at 6:30 a.m.” Now they are awaiting the outcome of Saturday’s Alabama-Georgia game to learn their opponent in the BCS Championship on January 7 in South Florida.
UNLUCKY 13TH: Bishop Diego High did not get the breaks in its third consecutive road game of the CIF-SS football playoffs, as North Torrance scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to top the Cardinals, 28-14. Bishop had won 12 consecutive games — a school record — and was hoping to reach the finals for the third time and win its first championship. The last time the Cardinals played in a CIF final was in 2007, when they lost an epic overtime battle with Santa Clara and its star Cierre Wood, who is now running out of the Notre Dame backfield.
STATE CHAMP: Dos Pueblos High’s Bryan Fernandez won the state Division 2 cross-country championship at Fresno’s Woodward Park last weekend by a second over AJ Yarnall of Saugus. Max Davis of DP finished 12th, and the Chargers were the fourth-place team. Fernandez, who has not lost a race all year, will face the ultimate test this weekend when he competes in the Nike Cross Nationals at Portland, Oregon.