Wineka column: Livingstone's Springs knows first – and second – impressions

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 11, 2012

By Mark Wineka
SALISBURY – As the Livingstone College homecoming parade rolled down Main Street Saturday morning, Andre Springs felt as though he were back where he belonged.
In the 1980s as Livingstone’s golf coach, Springs built a program that won a national championship in 1989. It remains the school’s only national championship in sports.
While he worked at the school, Springs also made news as a local player, teaming in 1987 with partner Larry Frost to become the first African-American duo to win the prestigious Labor Day golf tournament.
In addition, Springs was the Rowan County Amateur Open medalist in 1986 and 1987.
But by the late 1980s, Springs had left for Cleveland, Ohio, to serve as general manager for the city’s Highland Park Golf Course. His career eventually steered him back to his hometown of Charlotte and a job at Birkdale Golf Club in Huntersville.
A couple of years ago, Springs’ chance meeting at Birkdale with Livingstone College President Jimmy Jenkins led the president to ask Springs to resurrect the school’s golf program.
Then this July, the school also named him its new athletic director.
“I always wanted to come back to Livingstone,” Springs says. “It’s like I’m in the right place.”
Springs threw scores of plastic footballs into the enthusiastic parade crowd Saturday. He could have done it all day.
“It hurt me when I ran out of footballs,” he says.
In his campus office at the Robinson Health Center, Springs can’t hide his excitement for Livingstone sports.
The football team is an offensive force, led by freshman quarterback Drew Powell. Two weeks ago, the Blue Bears upset powerful Virginia Union on the road and fell just short to a tough St. Augustine’s team in this past weekend’s homecoming game.
The women’s volleyball team is having a solid, winning season, and Springs predicts good things for the basketball squads this winter.
As for his golf team, Springs says his players will soon be in the conference championship hunt again.
“It starts with the energy on campus – our students,” Springs says of this school with an enrollment of 900.
The Blue Bear Backbone Squad, an enthusiastic group of student fans, attends games en masse to cheer on Livingstone. Alumni also are getting more involved, which comes with winning and being more competitive.
“That’s what it takes – all of us coming together as one,” Springs says. “… Sure, we need money, but the little things we can do ourselves.”
For Alumni Stadium, Springs immediately sought improvements to the turf, goalposts and scoreboard.
The next big projects are to revamp the basketball locker rooms, gather all the conference championship banners together, dress up the gymnasium and get Brutus the Bear mascot and Livingstone cheerleaders out into the community as goodwill ambassadors.
On a table in his office, Springs has the 1989 National Minority College Golf Championship trophy.
He found it stuck away in a closet.
Andre Springs’ father died when he was 14, but his dad had long been separated from his mother. Mae Marshall Springs raised four children pretty much on her own.
Russell McLaughlin, Andre’s grandfather, was “the man I looked up to,” he says. McLaughlin operated a restaurant in Charlotte off Mint Street in the late 1950s and early 1960s before he moved to Harlem and had his own shoe-shine business in two Manhattan skyscrapers.
Sometimes during summer visits, Andre spent the days with his grandfather as he went from office to office shining the shoes of New York businessmen.
His grandfather taught him in his kind of business – and many others, for that matter – you had to dress and act properly and depend on a pleasant smile and great personality to be successful.
“It’s always about first impressions,” Springs says.
He still has one of his late grandfather’s shoe-shine kits on wheels.
“You looked at him as this guy who was the man,” Springs says, though his grandfather never got past the sixth grade.
McLaughlin kept telling Andre that he had depended on common sense, his personality and smile. If Andre could add education to those things, he told his grandson, “You don’t have any excuse not to be successful.”
Springs had a strong interest in all sports as a youngster, but he was guided toward golf because he picked up balls and worked around the shop of a Charlotte driving range owned by Bob Strong.
He worked at the range from the time he was 8 until he finished high school.
Springs learned something about himself at Wilson Junior High, when he tried out for the golf team in seventh and eighth grades and didn’t make the cut.
Springs earned a spot on the junior high golf team as a ninth-grader and went undefeated. He was the only black junior high player in Charlotte, playing mostly Country Club-schooled opponents.
“Something in me would never let me stop,” he says. “That’s when a light came on in my life. You don’t give up if it’s something you really want.”
He played point guard for the West Mecklenburg High basketball team as a sophomore but became frustrated with the lack of team devotion. He stuck with golf, he says, because it fit his personality, and he didn’t have to worry about how others were performing.
Springs golfed well during his three years in high school and received a full scholarship to attend Fayetteville State University, which under Moses Walker was almost always the CIAA golf champion.
In his freshman year, Springs won the individual crown in the CIAA and was featured in Black Sports magazine. From his sophomore year on, he captained the FSU golf team and was the No. 1 conference player in points each year, as the school won four CIAA titles during Springs’ four years.
“I wanted to be the best golfer in the world,” Springs recalls.gggBut Springs shunned professional golf when he thought sponsorship offers were too low. Instead, Dr. Joe Robinson, who had been athletic director at Fayetteville State, took the same position at Livingstone and asked Springs to join the staff.
Springs wore many hats at Livingstone, besides being one of the youngest golf coaches in the nation. With his bachelor’s degree in physical education, Springs helped out as an assistant football coach, assistant basketball coach and equipment manager.
He took over as director of intramurals in his second year.
As for golf, Springs inherited the worst team in the CIAA. Having the players treat him with respect, since he was virtually the same age, also posed a problem.
“The guys didn’t take me seriously,” Springs says. They were late for practice, would not address him as “Coach” and lacked a winning spirit, he adds.
Springs called a team meeting to throw everyone off the team, except one player – Artie Kilgo of Gastonia. Springs told Kilgo he would play as an individual at every match.
Meanwhile, Springs started to recruit, with a dream to beat his alma mater Fayetteville State and his mentor, Moses Walker.
By his second year, Springs had a team, with players from places such as Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands.
Within three years, Livingstone beat Fayetteville State in golf. And by the fourth year, the Blue Bears were CIAA champions.
In his 10 years as coach, Livingstone won the CIAA golf championship five times, plus the Dr. H.J. Cochran National Minority College Golf Championship in 1989.
Interestingly, by that time, Springs already had left Livingstone. The golf team he had built was in the hands of friend and coach Morris Wiggins.
Wiggins always told people the team really belonged to Springs, whose name is engraved with Wiggins and their five players on the trophy.
By coincidence, the championship that year was held at the Cleveland course Springs was managing.
As a coach, Springs says, he tweaked the physical aspects of his players’ games, but he worked more on their mental approaches.
“We won it from the mental side,” he says.
After about five years in Cleveland, Springs returned to Charlotte and met Johnny Harris, who offered him a job at the course he was planning to build with an Arnold Palmer design.
To inaugurate the course in 1997, Birkdale Golf Club had a Skins game featuring Palmer and fellow Wake Forest University professionals Curtis Strange, Billy Andrade and Jay Haas.
Harris insisted that nobody caddy for Palmer the day of the game but Springs.
Springs couldn’t sleep the night before the Skins match just anticipating the day on the bag with Palmer. He will always cherish that day.
Several months later in December, a couple of sportswriters asked Springs to play a round of golf with them on the new Birkdale course. The writers noticed as each hole was going by that Springs was in a zone.
“They didn’t say one word to me on the back nine,” he says.
Springs posted a score of 66 that day to establish a new course record. Later, Harris would pay a $2,000 fee for him to attend a national teaching school in Myrtle Beach so he could become a teaching professional at Birkdale.
Years later came the chance meeting with President Jenkins of Livingstone.
Springs, who just turned 55, is single these days with three sons and a grandson. He still lives in Charlotte, making the daily commute to Salisbury.
“The only reason I came back to Livingstone College was that the president played golf,” Springs says, still marveling at how fate brought them together. “I knew he knew the value of the sport.”
So two years ago, starting a golf program from scratch again, Springs recruited players out of the student body, solicited friends for equipment and patched together a team.
Springs was honest with these first players. They probably weren’t going to win anything, he told them, but they would be exposed to a game that would help them over the rest of their lives.
He tells them what it has done for him. Through the years, he has played with Michael Jordan, Al Wood, Lawrence Taylor and Arnold Palmer – all because of golf.
He is in the sports hall of fame at two schools, Fayetteville State and Livingstone, because of golf.
And he’s athletic director, thanks to golf.
Now Springs predicts this coming spring he’ll have a couple of all-Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association golfers.
“We’re coming,” Springs promises. “We’re probably two years away from winning another championship.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or