The Blackshirts redefined

In the middle of live streaming video disasters, I had another chance to mull over a subject which most seem curious about, but hardly any want to talk about to any great extent. I am talking about, of course, The "Blackshirts." It was brought up today in earnest both to Head Coach Bo Pelini and to senior DT, Ndamukong Suh. As if we didn't already know, the Blackshirt sure has changed.

OK, so Bo was asked about the Blackshirts today.

He's been asked about them before.

His usual demeanor in response to the question seems to lie somewhere between disbelief and disdain.

Yeah, we can't leave it alone.

It has been around for 40 years though. Whether you agree with something or not, that kind of longevity makes it a tradition.

And, up to the point Bo Pelini arrived, it was pretty clearly defined:

If you started on defense, you got one.

Former Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride had his own spin on it in that for the last game of the regular season he would give one out to all of the seniors. But still, if you were a starter on defense, you got your Blackshirt before the first game of the year.

Going back to 2003, it wasn't up until right before the first game of the season did Pelini, then the Defensive Coordinator, hand them out. But he did hand them out, and they did go to all the starters on the defense. What was interesting that season was that the players themselves took the coveted symbols off, following a 31-7 lambasting at the hands of the Texas Longhorns. They didn't feel like they had lived up to what they believed the Blackshirts meant.

Could this be where Pelini himself learned what he believed to be the value of this coveted practice jersey?

You'd have to think that he does apply a certain amount of value to it, because as he said today, he put more importance on it than the view that if you started, you had one in your locker. "I think I said this a long time ago when I got here: it's something you've got to earn," he said. "And, you have to earn things over time. When that time comes, that's a feel-thing."

Let's do another flashback, this one to the day he walked back on campus as the official Head Coach of the Huskers. The famed Blackshirt-defense was feeling anything but famous, at least for all the right reasons.

It was bad enough that most of the entire staff had been fired, but the defense had to endure the fact that no Husker defense ever, was statistically as bad as this group was, ranking 112th out of 119 teams, giving up over 476 yards per game. From a scoring standpoint they were even worse, their 37.9 points per game allowed putting them at 114th.

Coming off the Pederson era, this was a state divided. Coming off the Callahan era this was a program that was deluded and ultimately defeated by trying to find an identity which seemed a bit too far removed from the one which seems to have built this program.

Appropriate that it was Tom Osborne who came back to build it back up.

But just like it was when he was the Head Coach, he had no more say or even input in this defensive tradition, leaving that up to the coaches in charge to decide.

When Pelini was brought back into the mix, while T.O. was mending fences, it was Pelini himself who had to mend the team. He was just the kind of polarizing figure to do it, too, as he was fiery but personable, strict but fair and best of all, he played the game at another elite college football tradition in Ohio State.

This was a guy who understood tradition. From Dotting the "I" to the Blackshirts, this was a guy who knew what stuff like that meant.

Or did he?

Pelini himself said over and over after he arrived and after his team was slowly climbing its way back to respectability, he could feel there was some healing that needed to be done. Not just between the administration and the fan base, but of the team itself. These defensive players especially, they just went through the most epically disastrous season in Husker history from a defensive point of view, and many of these players might have wondered if it could actually get worse.

Even if you are a black-and-white sort of guy, which Pelini refers to himself as constantly, this might be the most appropriate time for a different shade of gray.

After all, despite all the respect Pelini had earned from that 2003 team where his defense led the country in forced turnovers and pass efficiency defense, some of these players he had going into the 2008 season didn't even know his name.

It would be hard to go in where you aren't known by everyone for what you did before or how you were, and give a super-duper-ra-ra-speech and expect it to work.

But, of course, Pelini isn't that sort of person anyway.

I do think, though, that considering the circumstances which he faced when he was brought in, just maybe that jersey so desired by all the defensive players, could be used as a sort of motivation to get better.

That's where the Blackshirt changed.

To say it hasn't is to defy the obvious. It used to be given out to the starters on defense, and Pelini didn't follow that line of thinking after he arrived. Even when he did finally hand them out for the first time after the 45-35 win over Kansas last season, he didn't give them to everyone. Then juniors, Ricky Thenarse and Matt O'Hanlon, both of whom started for the Huskers at some point before that contest (Thenarse had started against Kansas and the following week against Kansas State), didn't get the jerseys while everyone else who started, did.

It seemed that Pelini, who talked before about wanting a team unified rather than a team divided, which is basically what he encountered when he stepped back on campus, might have inadvertently created some divisiveness on the side of the ball which had the most problems which needed fixed.

But to this day Pelini has maintained that his definition of this jersey wasn't about the perception from the outside. "I don't get caught up in all that, and our football team doesn't either," Pelini said in response to a question regarding the public's fascination with the Blackshirt versus how he looked at it.

What his definition is, he believes is simple: "It represents playing at a very, very high standard, week in, week out, as a unit," he said. "It's about earning that right by how you are executing and the type of football you are playing."

Some might say that despite the couple lapses against Virginia Tech, the defense had earned their blackshirts that day. And perhaps more would say that you just pitched a shutout against Louisiana-Lafayette as your team pounded the visitor, 55-0. What more could you want?

But if you really want the clearest definition of what a Blackshirt is or isn't, you need only to listen to what senior defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. Here's a guy who is considered the best defensive tackle in the country and a potential number one pick in the following NFL Draft. And he's certainly done nothing this year to quell that belief. He's wore the Blackshirt before, and it's something he wants to do again. But when asked about it, here are perhaps the most telling quotes, I personally believe, tells you what the definition of the Blackshirt is now, to him, to Pelini and eventually, it will be to everyone else.

"I can only speak for myself, it would mean a lot to me to get another Blackshirt. I believe I have had three up to this point," he said. "I would definitely like to get that fourth one, being that it's my fourth season."

It's an award. It's a trophy. It's a plaque.

Perhaps your memory is better than mine, but this is the first time I have ever heard anyone refer to the coveted practice jersey as a thing, meaning it's something you want to win, earn…whatever. It's a reward for performances made, effort given…whatever. Like any post-season award, this is a trophy of sorts, and it's only given out when you have met the criteria of the person or people who are doing the judging.

In this case, Bo Pelini.

I know that isn't going to sit well with some who have taken what was essentially a device to determine starters from non-starters on the defensive side of the ball, and made it into this ultra-symbolic thing. And you can bet former players who donned this jersey for their career at Nebraska, are probably going to cringe.

But let's be realistic about where reality and tradition collide.

The reality was before the day Bo Pelini arrived that for four decades this jersey indicated who started on defense and who didn't. The symbolism came from longevity and a certain amount of success over a certain amount of time.

Because the Blackshirt was there throughout all of it, of course it's going to have a sense of importance to those players who were fortunate enough to wear them. But they wore them because they were starters.

What Bo Pelini has done, whether it was this grand scheme or not, has changed what the jersey means. Not to the players, because I think now more than ever, there should be a little more importance attached to it, because Pelini himself has proven that he's not going to give them to just anyone, and at any certain time.

He has a standard, and whether you agree or disagree with it, you have to respect t it, because in his black-and-white world, you do or you don't, you are or you aren't, and yes, it is what it is.

But tell me that when or even IF they are handed out this year, and Pelini said he could see himself not handing them out at all, the players who do receive them won't really feel something when they see them in their locker.

Other players before them felt something similar, but they weren't in these players' shoes. These players had to wait until game-five, game-six or whenever, before that day when they opened their locker and there it was.

We'll have to look back on it someday to see if it worked or had the desired effect. But there's no doubt that the Blackshirt has changed. It's been literally redefined.

And what is perhaps the most ironic is that in less than two years time Pelini has reestablished the meaning of the jersey which so many seem to cling to as what it's always meant or always been about, but seemed to attach wins to that more than they did how players actually played.

Is that the right way to do it? Is that the best way?

Hard to say. We know Nebraskans don't like change. But we have seen what change is like when it seems like it's being done simply for the sake of change. But does anyone think there's an arbitrary bone in Bo Pelini's body?

No, he didn't follow the Nebraska script, but sometimes in rebuilding a program and a culture, you have to rewrite a few pages of the history book as well.


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