EAST LANSING, Mich. – Mark Dantonio’s humor is desert dry.
But just as there are pockets of life in any desert, Dantonio will every so often remind everyone his personality isn’t as arid as you might think.
This week would seem to be the perfect time for Dantonio to keep that side hidden. Trying to find a way to end a three-game losing streak means you can’t allow for any jocularity to creep in. Right?
If ever there was a time to keep the proverbial blinders on and focus on nothing but analyzing game footage and correcting a litany of trouble spots that have collectively led to Michigan State being on the short end of scores against Wisconsin, Indiana and Brigham Young, this would be that time. Right?
The local press corps certainly thinks so. At Dantonio’s weekly press conference on Tuesday, many reporters tip-toed on their questions so as not to cause the coach too much consternation. Answers with consternation usually aren’t great answers.
“You guys are almost apologetic asking me these questions,” he said. “I still have a sense of humor, believe it or not.”
The goals that Michigan State had for this season at the beginning of the year aren’t the same as they are now. Last season’s run to a Big Ten title and berth in the College Football Playoff had everyone inside and outside of the program expecting more. A 2-0 start that put the Spartans in the top 10 of national rankings has been followed with the most consecutive losses under Dantonio since 2009.
Dantonio is dealing with the situation the only way he knows how: be himself. He’s built Michigan State into his image of what football should be over the past 10 seasons – hard-nosed and tight-knit – and he’s not moving away from those principles. He’s the patriarch of this program and he has a good idea of when to push what buttons.
“He comes into the meeting rooms and he’ll have a smile on his face, but you know that he can make a joke and then the next play you mess up and he can rip you a new one,” junior linebacker Chris Frey said. “It happens. It needs to happen. He’s the leader of this team, and we respect him. He does have a sense of humor and he will crack a joke from time to time, but you’ve got to know that he’s not here to lose, and he hates doing it more than anybody.”
While the overall season expectations and goals may have changed, the week-to-week expectations haven’t.
“I think our expectation every week is to win,” Frey said. “It’s not going to change for anything. We expect to come into a game and we expect to win.”
The Spartans aren’t the only high-profile program struggling this season.
- Iowa, the team Michigan State beat in last year’s Big Ten championship game, is looking for answers as well to a puzzling season that has included home losses to North Dakota State and Northwestern.
- Oregon played for the national title two years ago but is 2-4 and gave up 70 points in a loss to Washington last week and nearly 200 points in its last four games.
- Stanford’s perch at the top of the Pac-12 will come to an end after back-to-back losses to Washington and Washington State.
- Michigan State’s win at Notre Dame doesn’t look as impressive now that the Irish have since dropped games to Duke and North Carolina State.
“This is a process that everyone goes through at some point in time, somewhere in their life, whether it’s on a football field or someplace else,” Dantonio said. “You go through a process of handling your problems and digging yourself out of a hole. It just doesn’t happen if you sit there and feel sorry for yourself.”
The last time Michigan State lost four games in a row was in 2006, the year before Dantonio arrived. That Spartans team actually had two four-game losing streaks, with only the largest comeback in NCAA Division I history separating them from being a nine-game losing streak. Trailing Northwestern 38-3 in the third quarter, Michigan State scored the final 38 points of the game for a 41-38 victory.
Northwestern just so happens to be the next team up for the Spartans.
“I guess my message to our fans is we’re working,” Dantonio said. “We’re going to be strong, stay the course. Spartan fans are Spartan fans. If you want to jump off the bandwagon a little bit, I understand, because people are fickle, success is fickle. But I think that we’ve built some equity around here hopefully. We’ve done it right. We’ve done it the right way. I think we’ve done it in a positive fashion and with class.
“Whatever comes down the pike, I can handle those things. I’ll take the brunt of that. I’d like to shield our football team from it as much as I can.”
Just like any good patriarch would do for his family.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo