The further removed from an event, the less consistency in the recollections of those involved. So it is with the history of Nebraska’s Blackshirt tradition. The details vary.
Even those who were there don’t always agree. Were the black contrast vests first used during the spring of 1964? Or were they handed out in the fall of 1964, the week before the Minnesota game? And whenever they were handed out, were they collected after each practice?
For that matter, which assistant coach bought them, Mike Corgan or George Kelly?
I can answer that last question with a degree of certainty. Kelly told me during a telephone interview in late August of 2000 that Corgan bought the black pullovers.
Corgan was in charge of purchasing equipment as well as coaching the offensive backs. Kelly coached the defensive line and coordinated the defense, though he didn’t have the coordinator’s title. Monte Kiffin was the first to have the title, when Tom Osborne succeeded Devaney in 1973.
Husker media guides are the source of that bit of history.
As Yogi Berra said, you can look it up.
Anyway, according to Kelly, the defense had been wearing gray practice vests in 1964, and “I didn’t think the contrast was as great as the offense wanted,” he said.
So Corgan, who had purchased the gray ones, was sent back to a local sporting goods store to get a different color. “I didn’t give a damn what color they were,” Kelly said.
“Iron Mike” returned with black, which, as the story goes, he got at a reduced price.
“He was cheap, extremely frugal,” said Kelly, who told Corgan the only reason the sporting goods store still had enough black ones “was because they didn’t sell.”
Corgan’s frugality is well documented, by the way. It was among his many endearing qualities.
Also, according to Kelly, the black pullovers were handed out each day before practice and collected afterward, not only to be washed but also because those working with the first-team defense varied during the week.
“There probably wasn’t a day when we didn’t make switches,” he said. “We put the grays on the second team so they’d want to elevate themselves.”
Whether in the spring or fall, the year was definitely 1964, when NCAA rules were changed to allow for two-platoon play. Prior to that, the rules limited substitutions.
Nebraska opened the 1964 season with a one-platoon approach, however. Players were used on both offense and defense in a 56-0 victory against South Dakota.
The next week, Devaney closed practices in preparation for the second game at Minnesota. And on Wednesday, the third-year head coach told reporters the Huskers would use offensive and defensive units against the Gophers. He was quoted: “We were afraid other teams would be able to take advantage of us if we didn’t go to the two platoons.”
Even though the rules allowed for liberal substitutions, no more than two players could be substituted at one time unless the clock was stopped. So some coaches would take intentional penalties on fourth down before punting to substitute their defensive unit, for example.
Devaney said he wouldn’t do that. Rather, his defensive team would be able to run some offensive plays and his offensive team would know something about the defense, just in case.
Initially, the first team was the offense. The second team was the defense. And the third team played both offense and defense. Travel rosters in 1964 included 42 players.
Nebraska used 33 of its 42 players and rallied from a 20-12 fourth-quarter deficit on the passing of Fred Duda to win the Minnesota game 26-21. The Huskers continued to use two platoons, although players were moved from one side of the ball to the other and, in some cases, went both ways.
EVOLUTION OF THE TRADITION
The Blackshirt reference caught on quickly, though at first it was two words, “Black Shirts,” as newspaper accounts five games into the 1964 season verify.
From the Oct. 21, 1964, Omaha World-Herald: “The (Nebraska) defensive unit got its ‘Black Shirt’ tag because members wear black pullover shirts in practice.”
From that same day’s Lincoln Star: “Tabbed the ‘Black Shirts’ by defensive line coach George Kelly and defensive secondary coach Jim Ross – the defensive unit members wear black pullover shirts in practice – the Cornhusker defensive platoon has done remarkably well.”
The sub-head on the story said: “ ‘Black Shirts’ Drawing Praise.”
Nebraska was leading the Big Eight in both total defense and rushing defense at the time. The Huskers would finish the 1964 season ranked second nationally in total defense.
The 1965 Husker media guide refers to the “Black Shirt Battalion. “During the 1970s, the guides used both forms – “Black Shirts” and “Blackshirts,” which became the accepted version in 1978.
Distribution of the black practice jerseys has changed over time.
Under Tom Osborne, Blackshirts were awarded at the end of pre-season camp, the week before the opening game, to the first-team defense, 11 players. Typically during bowl-game preparation, defensive coordinator Charlie McBride would award Blackshirts to all senior defenders. The skull-and-crossbones logo, and “throwing the bones,” became part of the tradition during McBride’s tenure.
In the early 2000s, the black practice jerseys were hung in lockers the week of the opening game.
Then, they were handed out in a pre-season ceremony, often more than 11. The jerseys themselves have changed, too, the plain pullover vests replaced by jerseys with numbers and names.
The Blackshirt tradition is the sum of all that has occurred since the time in 1964, whether spring or fall, when Corgan purchased the pullover vests. It wasn’t calculated, nor was it based on a conscious decision in the purchase of black, however appropriate the color seems now.
“Honestly, it was an accident of availability,” Kelly said.