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Longtime Spring Lake golf coach wraps up career

Josh VanDyke • Nov 25, 2017 at 8:00 AM

After 49 years and 88 combined seasons of coaching the Spring Lake boys and girls golf teams, George Bitner will no longer be leading the Laker programs he helped establish.

Bitner wrapped up his coaching career by helping the Laker girls squad to their 16th conference championship in his tenure and a third-place finish at the Division 3 state meet.

"I love kids, I love teaching, and I love golf. So this was a no-brainer for me," said Bitner of his career choice. "I've enjoyed every minute of it. If one of my teams won a tournament, we would always go out to eat afterward. There was always a sense of camaraderie with both the guys’ and the girls' teams.

"I've always said, ‘If you have good kids, you'll have good teams.' That's just how it goes. I always held a very free practice environment, where we played loose and there was never any pressure at practice. It was supposed to be fun, and I wanted them to have fun out there.

"I've always coached under the motto of ‘kismif' — which stands for ‘Keep it simple and make it fun.'"

Bitner has been simply outstanding as the leader of the golf program, holding an 85 percent win percentage in his 88 seasons coaching the boys and girls teams and has claimed more than 1,100 match wins in that time.

The decision to hang it up was a difficult one for Bitner, as a surging girls golf program that won three straight state titles from 2014-16 and a rebuilding boys team has the Lakers poised for more championship runs in the future.

"After the fall of 2016, George announced to me and (Spring Lake athletic director) Cavin (Mohrhardt) that he would be retiring after the girls' season in 2017," said Spring Lake Superintendent Dennis Furton. "We accepted that announcement and moved on with the process. We posted the position last spring and sought applications and offered the position to someone who is a staff member at the school.

"At the end of this past season, we caught wind of George talking about returning this spring to coach the boys' team. We sat down to talk to him about it, and he recanted from his original stance and said he wasn't ready to quit."

The two parties weren't on the same page at the time, but have since moved on with their original decisions.

"It's gut-wrenching because you can't measure what he's done for this school, and we just weren't on the same page," Furton continued. "Cavin has known him his whole life, and I've gotten to know him over the past decade or so. We all love George, but we came to the decision that the timing was right to stick to the original plan, and take the program in a different direction."

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Bitner, a 1955 graduate of Sturgis High School, didn't originally have a background in golf, but learned the game in an unorthodox fashion during his days as a high school student.

"I started working as a caddy at Clear Lake Country Club, and I worked my way up the ladder as a pro shop assistant and then became a private golf coach," he said. "I enjoyed the job, and I enjoyed the people I caddied and coached for.

"I just fell in love with golf because of that job. I just watched the golfer and learned from watching them play. I didn't take any lessons for at least 20 years; I just observed, took mental notes and passed those lessons on to the people I instructed."

Bitner went on to golf at Hope College shortly after that and decided to pursue a career in teaching.

"I taught at Holton High School after college, and I also coached track and wrestling," Bitner continued. "My fourth year there, I took up coaching golf as they started a golf program. It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed teaching the game to younger players."

While everyone knows Bitner as the Spring Lake golf coach, that wasn't his initial coaching position with the school.

"I moved to Spring Lake shortly after my time at Holton,” he continued. "The assistant athletic director at the time wanted me to coach freshman football. I had never coached football before. I played it in high school, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

"We had 75 kids come out and I only had one assistant. We ended up going 0-3-3. I gave up football because it wasn't really my sport. I went on to coach wrestling for eight years, before they gave me the boys golf job."

Bitner also helped coach boys track for six years and girls track for four more before the school decided to add a new program.

"In 1980, we went to a school board meeting when they were discussing dropping a sport," Bitner reflected. "We ended up adding girls golf and dropping gymnastics. I was excited about the opportunity to coach golf twice a year and get a new program up and running.

"Back then, golf was all one division, so it was difficult to get to the state meet. We did quite well in the beginning and eventually started breaking through with some All-State performers. We won our first district title a few years later, and the program continued to grow."

Bitner never imagined he would be a part of a historic run of state championships, and he was happier for the girls who accomplished that feat than padding his own personal stats.

"I'm just so proud of these girls. They all worked so hard on their own games and just love playing the sport," he said back in 2016 after the team completed their three-peat in Division 3. "It's very rewarding to see them reach their potential like that on such a big stage. They all get along well and they make coaching them a breeze."

GOOD COMPANY

Bitner credits his longtime assistant coach Dan Knue as a big reason for the program's continued success.

"He's worth every penny," Bitner said. "He's been with me for 19 years, and we have a good relationship. He was a pole vaulter for me way back when he was in high school, and he does an excellent job helping me with the teams. We mix and blend well together and that makes things easier to manage.

"I can't be everywhere at once, so it's nice to have a second set of eyes out there to see how the girls are doing and check in with them as they are moving from hole to hole. Mr. Knue and I have never raised our voices with them. We never told them what they did wrong, we told them what they need to do next time.

"I think it's important to always stay positive and keep a clear mind. Golf is such a mental sport. You're playing the course, not the other golfers. I think a lot of people lose sight of that sometimes."

Bitner's love of the game also introduced him to the love of his life, Eunice. On their first date, Bitner gave her a golf lesson and the rest, as he says, "is history."

He also coached his kids, Alyson and Andy, and hopes to enjoy watching their children grow up to become golfers.

In retirement, George plans to enjoy his time in North Fort Myers, Florida during the winter months, before heading back to Michigan in the spring.

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