Time again for a quote from Chief Bromden in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
That sort of sums up the genesis of Nebraska’s Blackshirt tradition, and now the gold shirts, which the Cornhusker defense wore during Tuesday’s practice.
It depends on the recollection. Many who were involved are no longer with us, and the memories of those who remain often differ in particulars.
We know the Blackshirts date to 1964, when an NCAA rules change allowed for two-platoon play. Under the rule, two players could be substituted at one time or an entire unit could be substituted when the game clock was stopped, causing some coaches to take intentional penalties to stop the clock.
But gold pullovers? More on that shortly.
Nebraska opened the 1964 season against South Dakota using players on both offense and defense. But during the week leading up to the second game at Minnesota, Coach Bob Devaney announced he would prepare offensive and defensive teams from the first two units, with third-team players still practicing both ways.
The coaches’ focus on Minnesota was such that Devaney closed practices that week, something untypical during his tenure. Reporters weren’t smart enough to know what was going on, Devaney joked, so he usually allowed them to watch practice.
The final decision on whether some players would be on offense or defense wasn’t made until Thursday of that week, according to newspaper accounts. As it turned out, most of the first-team players from the South Dakota game, a 56-0 victory, ended up on the offensive unit.
To the point here, the black pullovers might have been distributed for the first time that week, though some involved at the time remember it differently.
At least one player recalled first-team defenders getting black pullovers in the spring of 1964. A newspaper account indicated that before a scrimmage that spring, first-team offensive players got red pullovers and second-team offensive players green pullovers. According to that account, first-team defenders got black pullovers and second-team defenders got gold pullovers.
A newspaper account in the late 1990s referencing the Blackshirt tradition indicated that defensive line coach George Kelly had purchased black and gold pullovers from a Lincoln sporting goods store to differentiate the first- and second-team defenders in 1964.
The account didn’t specify spring or fall of 1964.
But Kelly, who remembered fall, said during an interview in 2000 that running backs coach Mike Corgan, a frugal sort, purchased the black pullovers in 1964. Most agreed Corgan bought them.
The sporting goods store had trouble selling the black pullovers, so Corgan was able to get a good deal. It was “an accident of availability,” Kelly said.
Players were wearing gray pullovers and greater contrast was needed. On that, most agree, along with the process: the black pullovers were handed out to first-team defenders at the start of practice and picked up afterward, to be redistributed the next day – possibly to different players.
Kelly, who oversaw the defense along with Jim Ross, didn’t mention gold pullovers.
Though Devaney didn’t divide the team into offensive and defensive units until the second game in 1964, he was detail-oriented and had obviously given considerable thought to two units. So the spring-scrimmage-in-1964 version of events could explain the black and gold distinctions.
Some involved have recalled it differently, however, Kelly among them. “We put the grays on the second team so they’d want to elevate themselves,” he said.
In that version, the gold pullovers would come later.
Oh yes, Nebraska beat Minnesota 26-21. That is certain.
Mike is in his 40th year covering Husker athletics, after seven years of community-college teaching. He has written and edited a dozen books, all on Nebraska football except one, a brief history of Husker basketball. He previously wrote for the Lincoln Journal and Star and Huskers Illustrated. He enjoys music, from the Grateful Dead and Jack Johnson to Van Morrison, Bob Wills, Glenn Miller and pretty much anyone else.