RIO GRANDE, Ohio – John Newton “Newt” Oliver, the architect behind the Rio Grande College men’s basketball teams from 1952-54 which were led by the prolific scoring efforts of Bevo Francis, passed away Sunday night at the Ohio State Medical Center.
He was 93.
Oliver posted a 60-7 record in two seasons as the head coach at his alma mater, including a 39-0 mark during the 1952-53 campaign when Francis averaged a whopping 50.1 points per game for the Redmen, who received one first-place vote and were ranked 26th in the Associated Press’ men’s college basketball poll on February 17, 1953, just ahead of UCLA and the University of Texas.
However, despite the perfect record and Francis’ exploits, the team failed to garner a bid to a post-season tournament – presumably because those figures came against what was deemed lower-level competition.
Oliver did everything he could to change that perception the following season by capitalizing on the curiosity surrounding Francis’ scoring prowess and, essentially, turning the Redmen into a barnstorming team by scheduling none of his team’s 28 games at the school’s claustrophobic, dilapidated on-campus facility known as the “Hog Pen”.
Instead, Rio Grande elected to play anyone, anywhere, anytime and the end result produced matchups against schools the likes of Villanova, Providence, Miami (Fla.), North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Creighton in storied venues such as Madison Square Garden in New York City and the Boston Garden.
Despite the upgraded schedule, the Redmen still managed to post a 21-7 record behind Francis, who earned second team All-American honors after averaging 47.1 points per game and scoring an NCAA-record 113 points in a win over Hillsdale (Mich.) College. The NCAA had refused to recognize his single-game high of 116 points against Ashland (Ky.) Junior College during the previous season.
A large portion of the financial guarantees that Oliver orchestrated for the road contests during the 1953-54 season was then returned to school in order to help meet the payroll for administrators and faculty, thus keeping the school of less than 100 students in operation.
“It’s a huge loss for the Rio community and for college basketball in general,” said Rio Grande men’s basketball coach Ken French. “He was a master – one of the best in the history of college basketball – when it came to promoting the game. He promoted the teams that he had with Bevo and, when you look through the history of small college basketball, there’s been none better. Newt orchestrated things that will never be duplicated again. I always enjoyed talking with him every year. His passion for basketball and playing the game the right way were unmatched. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Oliver left Rio Grande following the 1953-54 season and signed a contract with Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein to serve as the coach of the Boston Whirlwinds, one of the traveling teams in the Globetrotters’ organization.
Prior to becoming a coach, Oliver was an outstanding player in his own right.
He was college basketball’s top scorer during the 1947-48 season, scoring 725 points and setting two national free throw records for the Redmen. His 291 free throws were a single-season record at the time, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Bureau.
“Coach Oliver is a large part of Rio’s history,” Rio Grande athletic director Jeff Lanham said. “He stands alone in his approach to the promotion of small college basketball. He’ll certainly be missed.”
“I’m saddened to hear of the passing of coach Oliver,” added Rio Grande women’s basketball head coach David Smalley. “He was one of the most ingenious and creative promoters of the game of basketball. I was blessed to know him on a personal basis for the past 26 years and valued his advice on any subject matter – especially basketball. His passion and love for the game was evident throughout his playing days, his coaching days and his life. As we go forward, we’ll miss coach Oliver and always be grateful for the impact he had on our school, the game of basketball and the countless number of men, women and student-athletes whom he touched, inspired and provided opportunities to grow.”
Oliver, who was born on Christmas Day in 1923, left the Globetrotters after 2-1/2 years and returned to teaching in Clark County, Ohio in the spring of 1956 – a position he continued in until 1964. During that same period, he became a successful restaurateur before retiring from the business in 1972.
In 1979, Oliver successfully ran for Clark County Commissioner and served two four-year terms.
“It’s difficult to measure exactly how big of an impact coach Oliver made on our institution and in our community,” said Dr. Michelle Johnston, President of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College. “Whether as a student, a coach or a Rio fan, he made countless contributions toward the success that the University has enjoyed over the years. Without question, he will be missed.”
He is survived by his wife, Maxine, and a son, John “Newt” Oliver, Jr.
Visitation is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 23, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., at the Richards, Raff & Dunbar Memorial Home in Springfield, Ohio. Funeral services will follow at 1 p.m.