History of the Blackshirts at the University of Nebraska

Bugeatersteve StuchlikCorrespondent IDecember 27, 2008

As many of you may know, the starting defensive unit at Nebraska is referred to as the Blackshirts, but I am sure many of you don't have a clue as to why. Here is the story that I have uncovered when researching the subject.

When the two-platoon system in college football was instituted in 1964, the Huskers were preparing for a game at Minnesota, and Head Coach Bob Devaney was looking for a way to distinguish the first string defensive unit from the reserves on the practice fields.

To help in this situation, Devaney dispatched assistant coach Mike Corgan to a local sporting goods store to find some "contrast jerseys," to wear on top of the players' practice jerseys.

While the top offensive unit practiced in red jerseys and the second-string offense worked in green pullovers, the first string defense wore black pullovers and the second string wore the contrasting gold jerseys. This is where the actual colored shirt originated.

While the 1964 defensive starters were the first to wear the black practice jerseys, the name didn’t originate there. It took several years before the state's newspapers started referring to the Husker defense as the Blackshirts, while the first mention of the Blackshirts in the Nebraska football media guide did not occur until 1969.

According to long-time sports information director Don Bryant, much of the credit for the Blackshirt mystique should go to defensive line coach George Kelly, who served on Devaney's staff until 1968. Kelly was often heard yelling and exhorting the Blackshirts during practices and scrimmages.

Eventually, the rest of the coaches began calling the top defensive units by the same name. However the first mention of the term “Blackshirts” was used in the 1969 Nebraska Media guide.

The Blackshirt term really began to catch on during Monte Kiffin's tenure as defensive coordinator in the mid-1970s. But it was under Charlie McBride that the Blackshirts earned national acclaim and recognition.

McBride served as the Huskers' defensive coordinator from 1982 to 1999. His defenses were among the nation's top 10 in all four major defensive categories (rush defense, pass defense, total defense and scoring defense) on four different occasions, helping Nebraska to national titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997.

For many years, the jersey was left hanging in a player's locker before the start of the week's practice. During the Callahan era, members of the top defensive unit receive their Blackshirts the week of the season opener in a team ceremony and were presented to all first-unit players, including starters in different defensive sets.

So you could say that the Blackshirts had become watered down as more than 14 players were awarded the shirt instead of earning it. This started to show on the field as well.

Under the coaching of Bill Callahan, the Huskers went from the 11th-ranked defense with Bo Pelini as the coordinator in 2003, to one that ranked in the bottom five in the nation under defensive coordinator Kevin Cosgrove, giving up 40 points or more on six different occasions.

This was one of the main reasons that Bo Pelini was hired by Dr. Tom Osborne as head coach to replace Callahan. This change once again resulted in another dramatic turnaround on the defensive side of the ball.

The result was that not only did the defense improve, but the offense became more of a ball-control unit that led the country in time of possession and actually set the record for controlling the clock.

Also, just to make certain that the players were buying into Pelini’s concept, the Blackshirts were not given out at the start of the season as had been  the normal practice.

Instead, Pelini did not award them until the 10th game of the season, Nov. 11, 2008, to be exact.

This sent a clear message to his team, that team awards such as the Blackshirts had to be earned; they were not just given out for the sake of it. I can also assure you that if the defense fails to live up to the expectations, they will be taken away, count on that. 

Also, only 11 of the Blackshirts were given out, to the starters. This is all part of the "Restore the Order" that Pelini and his staff has been using as their motto.

This concept seemed to work in motivating the players, as there were only two teams, Oklahoma and Missouri, that scored more than 40 points against the Huskers this past season. That mark will continue to go down, I am certain.

Pelini and his staff have already started making preparations towards the future. Of the 23 verbal recruits for next season, 13 are on the defensive side of the ball. Of those, six play defensive back or safety, a clear sign of the requirement for playing in the Big 12.