On Tuesday, I made the short drive out to Fremont to listen to defensive coordinator Erik Chinander and defensive backs coach Travis Fisher field questions from around 100 Huskers fans as part of the statewide Husker Nation Tour.
In the biggest upset of the day, it took nearly 40 minutes before a fan asked about everybody’s favorite offseason topic, the Blackshirts.
Fisher was the first one to speak before ceding the floor to Chinander.
“I know Coach Chins took this one to heart,” Fisher said. “When he first took the job, he came to me and said, ‘They were passing those Blackshirts out like M&Ms. That’s not happening.’ That’s what he told me. He addressed the football team and the defense.”
Last season, the former coaching staff handed out 16 Blackshirts. The Huskers went on to give up 36.4 points per game.
When Chinander shared his thoughts on one of Nebraska’s most famous traditions, it became clear that Fisher’s words rang true — Nebraska’s new defensive coordinator is passionate about the Blackshirts despite having no Husker background himself. His response was nearly 700 words. Here it is in it’s entirety.
“Before I made any public comments about it I wanted to make sure I understood. Hearing the story about how the Blackshirts got created is not enough. Obviously Barrett Ruud’s a great resource; he was a great Blackshirt; and Kenny Wilhite’s in our office who was a great Blackshirt. I also talked to a lot of the guys, a lot of the defensive linemen, the Peter brothers, Grant Wistrom, [Adam] Carriker, the Kelsays, they all came in and talked to us. Then one day, Charlie McBride called and said ‘Hey, I’m going to come by and meet you.’ I said OK, and about four hours later, we were still talking.
“I think it’s important to understand after talking to him, who is a Blackshirt? Well, it started off as the 11 starters, but to understand where it’s at, it’s not the 11 starters that’s important. It’s who deserves to be a Blackshirt. At that point in time, it just so happened to be that those guys were doing everything the right way, and that was just the whole team at Nebraska at that time. So now what happens is … there can be 11 or 12 or 13 or 14 Blackshirts, there can be. This year, I don’t know. There might be 14 or there might be four.
“The important thing is not only do they prove themselves on that field on Saturday by the way they play but they’ve got to practice the right way and the way that their teammates can depend on them. They’ve got to go to school, they’ve got to be a Blackshirt on campus when they leave our building. They’ve got to be a Blackshirt in the community when they leave our building They’ve got to be a Blackshirt in every facet of their life or they don’t get one. Once we hand out a Blackshirt, that thing can be taken away as fast as you got it. They have to know that, listen, ‘You don’t own that Blackshirt; you’re renting that Blackshirt and rent’s due every day, bub. If you can’t handle that, then you don’t need to be part of that thing.'
“There can be a guy that can be our nickel or our fourth defensive lineman in the rotation but he does everything the right way, he practices the right way — he might be the fourth Blackshirt and he might be the only guy that’s got a Blackshirt, he might not be a starter. Now, what you’d like to have is 11 starters have the Blackshirt. I was talking with Coach McBride and I said, ‘Coach, I’ve got to be honest with you, if we’re going to live up to what you got done here and if I even want to be close to stepping into your shadow, I don’t have 11 guys that you’re going to be proud of to wear a Blackshirt.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s fine, Erik, just give four or give two or give nine or give whatever you’ve got to give.’
“It’s going to be a decision from the coaching staff and obviously Scott’s got ultimate decision on everything in his program, and we’ll give those Blackshirts out as necessary. There are this many [zero] Blackshirts right now on our team and there will be this many [zero] Blackshirts probably until we see somebody play in a football game. There might be a couple guys we want to have them through camp that may have earned them but I want to see them play under the bright lights before they’re going to go ahead and get one. Maybe by the end there will be 11, I don’t know. Maybe there will only be four. But it’s going to be a decision by our coaching staff. Those kids are going to earn them and it’s going to be back to where when that thing is in your locker when you open your doors on Tuesday morning, there are probably going to be some tears rolling. I don’t think that was always the way it was, but I think it’s going to be a special thing and it’s going to be back to the greatest tradition in college football.”
The part most outlets seemed to latch onto was the line about potentially withholding the Blackshirts until after seeing the players in action during the season. That brings back memories of Bo Pelini’s method of waiting until the defense “earned it” at some point during the season.
Personally, I’m not a fan of Pelini’s version of the tradition. It turns the whole thing into something of a circus. Each week people are wondering when the Blackshirts were coming out. It was a constant question. There was no established criteria for what it meant to earn a Blackshirt beyond when Pelini decided the team had done it. And what happens when the team shuts down a weak opponent, gets their Blackshirts and then struggles the next weak against a conference foe?
Now, based on listening to that entire response, I don’t believe this new staff wants to resurrect the Pelini method of awarding Blackshirts. It seems like this is more of a first year type of mindset as the coaches try to figure out exactly what they have on their hands from a roster standpoint.
Take Luke Gifford, for example. The hometown kid who worked his way up the ranks, earned a Blackshirt last season and was very productive until injury cut his junior season short. While recovering, Gifford has done his best to be a source of leadership from the sideline. But here’s what Chinander had to say when I asked him about Gifford being back to full strength for the summer and fall.
“It’s an interesting question because everybody’s told me how good he is, but I see better than I hear,” Chinander said. “I’ve got to see him do some stuff. But I’m very excited about his reputation, obviously some of the film he’s put out there, just the way he is around the building and the room. I think there’s definitely something for him, definitely a spot for him once we see. We’e just got to kind of figure out what that natural progression’s going to be for him. But I’m very excited about getting him in the mix.”
If there’s anyone on the team that has the look of a Blackshirt, it’s Gifford. But even with him, Chinander just wants to see it first. The coaches did not recruit most of this roster. Their relationship with those players is about six months old. The coaches are still trying to figure out who their best players are, who their leaders are.
The in-game performance is only one part of the equation too, and in the future it might be more important in keeping a Blackshirt than it is in earning it. Chinander mentioned practice habits, classroom performance and good representation in the community as important parts in determining who will wear the black practice jerseys come the fall, and I believe those will weigh more heavily.
For me — sports writer from Omaha who was born in the ‘90s and never played football — a player earns a Blackshirt by proving to the coaches that they can count on him to give max effort, to display some form of leadership (be it vocal or by example), to represent the program well and to make an impact on the field. Ideally, the players do that in fall camp and have their Blackshirts prior to the first game. The Blackshirts go to, hopefully, the 11 primary starters with perhaps a nickel corner or third-down pass rusher who will see the field a lot in the mix as well.
I don’t think these coaches feel all that differently than I do about it overall, but they are hesitant to give up too much too soon to these players. This whole first year — including winter conditioning, spring ball, summer workouts, fall camp and the 2018 season — is all about establishing a standard for the players.
Yes, withholding the Blackshirts for a bit is a motivational tool. But it’s not so much of a “carrot/stick” approach as it is an attempt to make the Blackshirts really mean something once again. While Chinander mentioned that rent for a Blackshirt is due every day, down the road it won’t mean thinking about the possibility of losing it with poor performance, but rather it’ll become just what the players do, or as Chinander said, they won’t be with the team.
Chinander and the other coaches know how much the Blackshirt tradition means to Nebraska, and it seems they feel the same way as the fans and former players about its importance. They want to honor that tradition, and the best way to do that is to start playing like the Blackshirts of old.
That is the standard that Erik Chinander is trying to establish at Nebraska.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.