EAST LANSING, Mich. – “Denny from Waterford is our first caller.”
It’s as standard for Mark Dantonio’s weekly radio show that “Denny from Waterford” be the first caller as it was for Helen Thomas to get the first question at White House press conferences. This is part of how the Michigan State head football coach connects with his constituency, the fans and alumni. That connection isn’t for show. It’s very real and something Dantonio takes to heart.
It’s a big reason why even though Michigan State’s football team has lost four straight games, you’d never know that being at Reno’s East Sports Bar on a Thursday night.
“We respect the program, win, lose or draw,” said Roger Luedeman, a retired Michigan State alum who’s two children also own degrees from the university. “You can’t compare us to any other Big Ten school when it comes to the fan base. We don’t give up on our team as fans. Most of the people that are in here are graduates, former instructors and some of the oldest money in the Big Ten. I’m so blessed to be part of it.”
Reno’s East owner Jessie Stipcak says there is a waiting list every week for people who want to sit in the two rooms that make up the audience section for the show. That’s about 200 people for the reserved section that can look right at the front table where Dantonio sits with show host and Michigan State play-by-play announcer George Blaha, not to mention the adjoining rooms for the overflow crowd and regular customers.
Reno’s East has been the host of the Michigan State coach’s show for the past 13 years, going back to when John L. Smith was the head coach. It used to be host to Ron Mason’s weekly hockey show, a relationship that Stipcak says helped her secure the rights to host the football show. She holds the relationship dear as several folks make it a weekly routine to be in the audience.
“People here bleed green,” Stipcak said.
Her favorite part of the show is when Dantonio has two players join him on stage, usually one from the offense and one from the defense, for a question-and-answer session. Some of the talk is football. Some of it is about the players’ lives off the field. On this night, senior tight end Josiah Price and junior defensive end Demetrius Cooper are the coach’s guests.
“What number did you want when you came here?” Dantonio asks Cooper.
“Two,” Cooper replies.
“I gave him 98,” Dantonio tells his audience, producing laughs.
Then Dantonio explains why. Former Michigan State All-America linebacker and first-round NFL draft pick Julian Peterson wore No. 98. Dantonio said the thought Cooper reminded him of Peterson.
When it becomes Price’s turn to answer questions, Dantonio wants to know what Price’s favorite moment is of his career. He can’t pick one. There was his redshirt freshman season when Michigan State went to the Rose Bowl and beat Stanford. There was catching a touchdown pass to help win the Big Ten championship last year in Indianapolis, close to his hometown of Greentown, Ind.
Then there was last season’s win over Ohio State in Columbus.
“Playing Ohio State. They were ranked No. 2, we were ranked No. 10, and they were on a 24-game win streak or whatever, blah, blah, blah,” said Price, eliciting cheers and laughs. “No one gave us a chance in that game. That was pretty special as a team to come in there and get a win.”
Mitch Brooks, Mark Beach, Chris Pickney and John Dennis were at the show for the first time this season on Thursday. They would’ve loved to attend earlier, but they are coaches for the Michigan State club football team and usually have practice on Thursdays. This week, they were free to come to the show.
“There’s still a lot of talk about this team. Our players are still talking about them,” Brooks said. “It’s nothing but support.”
As the hour wraps up, Dantonio gives a brief preview of the next opponent, Maryland, then reassures the crowd at Reno’s East and over the radio that he’s feeling positive about the team and that it will break out of its slump, again drawing cheers and applause.
Blaha closes the show by shouting “Go Green!” There is only one appropriate response from the crowd.