Nebraska’s Blackshirt tradition is rooted in the 1964 season. That much is certain.
Changes in NCAA substitution rules allowed two-platoon play in 1964. And the week before the second game, Coach Bob Devaney divided the team into offensive and defensive units.
The week before the opener against South Dakota, he had maintained first-, second- and third-team designations and had substituted accordingly during a 56-0 victory.
The second week of the 1964 season, with offensive and defensive units identified, the first-team defense wore black pullovers during practice. That also is certain.
The preseason depth chart in the 1964 media guide, incidentally, lists only offensive positions, with four players at each position. The roster includes over 70 players in all.
What isn’t certain is exactly when Nebraska’s first-team defense began wearing the black pullovers in practice, whether it was the week of the Minnesota game in 1964 or before.
At least one Husker from that time traced the black mesh vests for defensive players during practice to the spring of 1963, used simply for contrast. He also remembered defensive line coach George Kelly’s having purchased the pullovers at a local sporting goods store. But Kelly said running backs coach Mike Corgan purchased the pullovers, a recollection Devaney shared. Corgan had a reputation for frugality, according to Kelly and Devaney, and the black pullovers weren’t selling, so the sporting goods store gave Corgan a sizeable discount. “I told Mike the only reason they had black ones was because they didn’t sell,” Kelly said during a 2000 interview. “I didn’t give a damn what color they were.”
Kelly, who passed away in May of 2003, coordinated the defense until he left for Notre Dame, his alma mater, following the 1968 season. Devaney never designated a defensive coordinator, or offensive coordinator. Monte Kiffin was the first Husker assistant to have the title “defensive coordinator,” when Osborne succeeded Devaney as head coach in 1973. Osborne was his own offensive coordinator.
A newspaper account indicated the team was divided before the start of spring drills in 1964, half working under Kelly and Jim Ross, half under Corgan and Carl Selmer. Also according to the account, black and gold scrimmage vests would be used by the first- and second-team defensive units, respectively, red and green vests used by the first- and second-team offensive units.
So the issue is resolved, possibly the spring of ’63 or at least the spring of ’64.
Whenever they were first used in practice, the black mesh vests were handed out at the start and turned in afterward. On occasion, they could even be changed during practice.
Kelly and Ross, the defensive backs coach, would yell “Come on, Black Shirts,” enough so that newspapers in Lincoln and Omaha referred to the “Black Shirts” that season.
In mid-October, the Omaha World-Herald reported that Nebraska’s “defensive unit got its ‘Black Shirts’ tag because members wore black pullover shirts to practice.” The same day, The Lincoln Star reported: “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.” And Hal Brown, sports editor of The Lincoln Star, referred to the “Black Shirt” defense in a story written for the 1965 Cotton Bowl program at season’s end.
Nebraska ranked second nationally in total defense in 1964, third in rushing defense and 10th in scoring defense, success that contributed to establishing the Blackshirt tradition. In 1965, the Huskers ranked eighth nationally in total defense. In 1966, they led the Big Eight in total defense. And in 1967, they ranked first nationally in total defense and passing defense as well as third in scoring defense.
The 1965 Husker media guide refers to the defense as the “Black Shirt Battalion.” In media guides during the 1970s, “Black Shirt” and “Blackshirt” are both used. In the 1978 media guide, and following, “Blackshirt” becomes the accepted form, one word.
The black vests at the beginning have long since been replaced with regular black jerseys with players’ names and numbers as well as the skull and crossbones that have become part of the Blackshirt tradition—a reference to defenders “throwing the bones.”
The alternate uniforms with black jerseys and a black N on the helmets the Huskers will wear for the Indiana game on Saturday are in tribute to that tradition.
“So I told the team this morning if we’re going to wear them, they’d better show up and play with an attitude that makes the Blackshirt alumni proud,” Scott Frost said at Monday’s news conference.
The original black mesh vests gave defensive players “something to rally around,” Kelly said in the 2000 interview. “I’m so proud it’s been maintained.”
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.