LONG READ: Forgotten in history

story by Phillip Steinmetz & Clayton Robertson

Let’s turn back the clock 81 years ago.

The year is 1935. Franklin Roosevelt is president, gas is ten cents per gallon, and the legendary baseball slugger Babe Ruth announced his retirement.

But for southern Indiana, perhaps the most impressive event was found in tiny Jeffersonville, Ind.

Why? Because the boys basketball team was in the midst of a perfect season.

The Red Devils were the overwhelming favorites to win their first-ever state title, a highly sought after achievement for a town whose 12,000 residents obsess over hoops. One game separated Jeff High from realizing their dream.

But that dream was never achieved.

21-0

Their record was unblemished.

Jeffersonville had dominated its opponents night in and night out, looking untouchable for most of the season. All-State senior guard Bill Johnson led the show, averaging 9.9 points per game. The Red Devils were beating teams by an average of 13.8 points, a huge disparity for games that typically stayed in the high teens and low 20s.

Despite the dominance, Jeff still faced scrutiny from members of local media.

After a three overtime, 31-24 victory against Evansville Central in January, the Red Devils were riding a wave of momentum. But according to a 1935 article in the Courier-Journal, an unnamed Evansville newspaper had nothing but negativity toward the Red Devils. The writer of the article claimed JHS didn’t deserve their high ranking, using terms such as “overrated” to describe their play.

Jeff head coach Janis “Hunk” Francis noticed the billboard material, and mailed each of his players a copy of that newspaper. The next time an Evansville team played Jeffersonville (Evansville Bosse), they defeated them by a score of 41-11, putting to rest the “overrated” talk.

Fans took notice. The entire city of Jeffersonville was behind the team, no matter who they played against. Some diehards even took a special train to Logansport to watch their “Crimson Tide” defeat the defending state champions, the Loganberries, 21-14. (In 1935, Jeff High’s mascot went back and forth being known as the Red Devils, Demons and Crimson Tide.)

Along the way to 21-0, Jeff picked up a critical road win against Anderson, 32-30, on Feb.2. In the last regular season match-up before Sectional, Jeffersonville downed Bedford, 40-21.

Francis had his “Francismen” playing at their highest level. The Red Devils were on top, and it seemed like no one could take them off their pedestal.

The road to state continues

The Jeff / New Albany rivalry, which began during the 1909-10 season, wasn’t renewed every year in the regular season at the time, but it was passionate in the postseason.

“You compared living in New Albany to living in Russia,” joked Gene Coomer, a 1944 Jeff High graduate.

New Albany seemed to be the only local team that would ever give Jeff heated competition every year. Despite the two teams first matching up against each other in 1909, the games during the 1930s is when the rivalry really blossomed into one of the state’s most competitive contests, year in and year out.

NA won three Sectional titles in six years, but Jeff nabbed two straight prior to 1935. In the mind of Francis, there wasn’t anything stopping this team from destiny this time around.

Jeffersonville strolled through their Sectional, defeating their opponents by a combined score of 212-54. In the semi-finals, Jeff defeated New Albany, 20-17, and went on to defeat Silver Creek, 49-15, to claim the Sectional championship.

This title was the third in a row for the Red Devils. Bill Johnson led all scorers with 19 points in the championship game.

In Regional, Seymour and Mitchell didn’t provide any discomfort to the heavily-favored Devils. They won the two games by a combined score of 83-42, and were on to Indianapolis, where their state title hopes continued to still be in tact.

Only the top 16 teams in the state advanced to Indianapolis, and Jeffersonville was hoping to build on their semi-final finish from the 1934-35 season.

Jeffersonville was scheduled to play Montgomery High School at 2 p.m. on March 15, the fourth game of the day. Jeff won by a score of 41-36. They were scheduled to play Michigan City at 9:30 a.m., the following day.

Everything was going great for Jeff. They now sported a record of 28-0, and felt like no one could possibly defeat them. Francis had his team playing spectacular despite their only assistant coach, Cotton Wood, not being present following his acceptance of a job at Morgan Packing Co. in Austin, Ind.

But what happened the night of March 15, 1935 is still considered a conspiracy by many.

Evening: March 15, 1935

Following the Montgomery game, the team had their usual dinner together. Francis decided to call it an early night, as Jeff faced the possibility of playing in three games the next day if they continued to win.

As the team headed to their hotel rooms, Coach Francis stopped by the hotel’s bar to get a glass of milk before hitting the sack for the night.

Players on Jeff, and some community members, knew about Francis’ past struggles with alcohol. But with so much on the line, the team trusted him when he told them that it was just going to be milk. All of the players shrugged off their coach’s decision and went to bed without giving a second thought.

That decision to get milk would haunt Francis, and his Jeffersonville team, for the rest of their lives.

“One thing I will say is the players on that team don’t know what happened to Coach Francis. They knew how he was that day, but they don’t know what happened the night before. They refuse to speculate about it,” Bill Johnson Jr. told the News and Tribune in 2007.

Morning: March 16, 1935

With one round of the state tournament in the books, eight teams remained.

Jeffersonville was set to play Michigan City at 9:30 a.m. If victorious, the boys would play at 2:30 p.m., and then 8:00 p.m. for the state championship game.

Players woke up for breakfast at the Marrott Hotel in Indianapolis. Groggy, the team readied itself to eat for fuel to play in the biggest sequence of games for the Red Devils.

It was championship game day and the team was prepared to travel to the Butler Fieldhouse, which is now known as Hinkle Fieldhouse, the same place famous fictional Hickory won the Indiana state championship in the movie Hoosiers.

Everything seemed normal, almost routine, to the untrained eye. Breakfast was satisfying, and the players were focused.

However, the players noticed something was off. Their focus and attention, which was supposed to be on nothing other than the game, was elsewhere. Why?

The team was missing their coach, Janis “Hunk” Francis.

It was the morning of arguably the biggest game of the high school players’ lives. Despite the 9:30 a.m. tip, Francis was nowhere to be found.

The players searched everywhere: the lobby, his hotel room, the bathrooms.

The Marrott front desk knew nothing. Nobody had a clue where the most significant person was for the most important day in Jeffersonville’s 1935 basketball season.

However the game had to go on, with or without Francis.

So the Jeff High players slowly gathered outside of the hotel, without any adult to accompany them, knowing there was no other assistant coach or if theirs was not located.

Suddenly, a taxi cab pulled up to the 2600 block of Meridian Street in downtown Indy. Its approach was slow and mysterious, as if it was looking for something.

The taxi driver, stoic and stern, rolled down his window, and looked to senior Red Devil basketball player Bill Johnson.

“Are you guys from Jeffersonville?” the taxi driver asked.

Players nodded.

“I have your coach in the backseat.”

Sure enough, in the backseat, was Hunk Francis, laying face-down, knocked out cold. His breathing was slow and he held a faint pulse.

Hours before the biggest game in the history of Jeffersonville High School, their head coach was imitating death.

9:30 a.m.: Jeffersonville vs Michigan City

With stakes high and one loss away from going home on the biggest stage, Jeff laced up their sneakers without a conscious coach for the first time ever.

Francis was in attendance. However, the head coach was still knocked out cold, and had to be propped up on the bench. Spectators were perplexed by the behavior, or lack of, by the only coach on the team.

Jeff would eventually pull out a close win in the quarterfinal game. Following a low-scoring affair, the Red Devils were able to prevail in a defensive struggle.

Final score: Jeffersonville 26 Michigan City 23.

2:30 p.m.: Jeffersonville vs. Richmond

With Francis still unconscious throughout the afternoon, Jeff squared off against Richmond in the semifinal game, with the winner earning a chance the play for the championship trophy. With Francis still incapacitated, the leadership went to Johnson, who had the unexpected privilege of being player-coach the entire Saturday.

In a scene that mirrored the morning game, Francis sat propped up on the bench. And just like the morning game, Jeff fought through another slugfest, this time with Richmond.

Ernie Andres, who would eventually play one season of Major League Baseball for the Boston Red Sox, and Johnson, were the heroes for the game. They were the only players that scored in double digits for Jeffersonville, scoring 11 and 10 points, respectively.

After trailing 19-18 at halftime, Jeffersonville took control in the third quarter. They outscored RHS by seven, and held them to just three points in the period. The Crimson Tide were able to hold off Richmond in an exciting, see-saw battle for a five-point victory.

Once again, Jeff survived, slated to play on Saturday night in the championship. The win, which was the 31st consecutive, was tied for an Indiana high school record until 1994-95.

Final score: Jeffersonville 33 Richmond 28

8:00 p.m.: Jeffersonville vs. Anderson

  For the first time all Saturday, Francis stayed back at the hotel, unconscious, rather than attending the title game.

Johnson resumed his role of player-coach, just as he did for the morning games, and the Crimson Tide were ready to fight for what would have been the first basketball state title in school history.

Anderson was a tough opponent. Jeff had already beaten them in the regular season 32-30, but the feat was not easy.

Ironically, despite their 31 consecutive wins and earlier season win, Jeff was not the favored team going into the game. It was rumored that the odds were in favor of the Anderson squad 12/7 to win, according to local bookies.

The “Francismen” did not get off to a good start to the game, and by the end of the first quarter, the Red Devils found themselves in a big hole, trailing 11-3 to the Indians.

However, despite the deficit, the boys never panicked. Under Johnson’s leadership, Jeff clawed their way back from being down 19-9 to make it a game, cutting Anderson’s lead back to single digits in the second half.

Jeffersonville played brilliant defense throughout the state tournament, and this game was no exception. Other than the uncharacteristic first quarter, they held Anderson to just four points in each of the remaining three quarters.

The man Jeff turned to for points was senior forward Charles Rauth, who had seven points off of three field goals. After trailing at halftime, Rauth nailed a two-point shot to open the second half, and added a second basket minutes later. His third field goal included a jump shot from the baseline with three minutes left to give the Crimson Tide hope for a last gasp at a comeback.

However Jeff had no answer for Indian stars Clutch and Billy Jackson, who were kept in check during Anderson’s afternoon overtime win against Shelbyville. The duo combined for 16 of Anderson’s 23 total points and had four field goals each.

Unfortunately, Jeff shot a woeful 8-of-44 from the field, which equates to a brutal 18.2-percent — a statistic too harsh to overcome for the Crimson Tide.

Final score: Jeffersonville 17 Anderson 23.    

31-1

“I went down to Schimpffs (Confectionery), and on the window they got the score update by telephone, since there was no public broadcast,” Coomer remembered. “When they put the final score up, people started crying. That’s when I became a true Jeff fan.”

There was no way around it. Jeff had the trophy in their grasp, but it was just far enough to never be reality. Many residents like to think that if Francis was able to coach, the final outcome would have been different.

Immediately following the loss, Johnson walked around downtown Indianapolis in the pouring rain. He wanted to get away from the moment; he came so close to earning the first state title for Jeffersonville before it was yanked away from him.

What happens now, he thought? What happens with Francis? Where do the Red Devils go from here? There were so many unanswered questions.

The next day, Johnson had to make the 90-mile drive back to Jeff in Francis’ car, with the coach recovering in the backseat. Francis was still out of it despite being 24 hours removed from the incident.

“All the team members said the same thing. If he was drunk, he would’ve sobered up, but he was still out of it a few days after,” said Michael Johnson.

No one knows who exactly drugged him, but rumors were everywhere. One of the more popular rumors going around claimed it could have been mob-officiated workers that were employed on the docks in the Ohio River, but nothing of substance ever surfaced.

Fired

Following the game, the school board wanted Francis out of the high school immediately. They had no choice but to fire their five-year coach.

According to a statement issued by the school board: “After an investigation of the facts presented by a committee of Jeffersonville men at a called meeting of the Board of Education, the members of the board feel that it is the board’s duty to demand the resignation of Janis Francis as athletic director and basketball coach of the Jeffersonville High School.”

And just like that, Francis was forced out of his position, never working for Jeffersonville High School again.

Jeff had no choice but to move on and look toward the future, seeking out a new basketball coach. Anderson, on the other hand, would go on to win three state championships in 10 years.

During the coaching search, The Evening News, a local Jeffersonville newspaper, posed a poll question that included all the candidates that entered job applications for Francis’ former position.

Despite his firing, Francis was still the second-leading vote earner with 202. Glenn Curtis, who eventually coached at Indiana State University for eight seasons, earned the most with 312. Ironically, an unheard of up-and-coming coach, and future UCLA coaching great, John Wooden came in seventh with 18 votes.

Jeff would eventually name Frank Barnes, who would go on to coach Shelbyville to a state title in 1947, the head coach. Barnes finished with a 74-30 record during his five-season tenure.

Even with a fresh start, it was tough for anyone to move on from something so unpredictable, as the school and community remained in total shock.

But could Jeff have won if Francis was on the sideline coaching?

The game will just now be considered with a “what if” scenario every time someone mentions 1935, or Hunk Francis.

Jeffersonville basketball was capable of regaining the fame of their program that they once had, but would have to wait nearly 60 years for the school’s first state title in 1993. Still, the tradition that Francis instilled holds true today.

Few know the story of the 1935 team. Even fewer know the real truth behind it. For the couple of people still living that do know, they believe that it might be better to just keep the identity of the person behind it a mystery.

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