When will the Blackshirts be handed out?
From the beginning that question was clearly a major irritant. So over time, reporters quit asking. Bo Pelini would hand out the black practice jerseys when he saw fit, and certainly not because someone else’s interpretation of Husker tradition required it.
Besides, Blackshirts weren’t simply handed out. They had to be earned, in practice as well as in games.
Pelini’s first season, 2008, Blackshirts weren’t earned until early November. They were handed out after the 10th game, at Kansas, 11 of them.
In 2009, as near as anybody could tell, they were handed out on the Friday before the Texas Tech game, following an off-week and a victory at Missouri – apparently 13 of them.
Last season, they were handed out after the third game at Washington, 12 of them.
And this season, they were handed out on Monday, following an impressive defensive effort against Michigan State, with as many as 20 defenders earning them.
Earlier in the day, during his weekly news conference, Pelini talked about the Blackshirt tradition, which began in 1964, after NCAA rules were changed to allow for two-platoon play.
“When I first got here, I was so removed from the college game,” said Pelini, who was defensive coordinator on Frank Solich’s final staff in 2003. “I don’t remember who talked to me about it. Everyone was talking about Blackshirt this, that and the other thing.
“I remember asking somebody and needing to take a step back. People were talking to me about Blackshirts, and I thought, ‘Yeh, I have a lot of black shirts.’ I didn’t know what they were talking about. It might have been Coach Solich or someone around the program for a while that gave me an idea of what I was walking into.
“You come from the outside and aren’t quite sure. But I think it’s a great tradition, and we’ve embraced it. And I think there’s a pride that goes along with the tradition.”
No doubt. Senior linebacker-defensive back Lance Thorell is among those earning Blackshirts for the first time. “It means the world, to be part of this tradition,” he said after Monday’s practice.
Thorell is from Loomis, Neb., and walked on. He earned a scholarship this season. And now he has a Blackshirt. “What this shirt means is . . . I mean, it’s awesome,” he said.
Redshirted freshman defensive tackle Chase Rome is another of the first-time Blackshirts. “It’s still kind of surreal to see black out of the corner of my eye” on the practice field, said Rome.
“This is the standard we have to continue to play to.”
Blackshirts can be pulled, as happened last season in a couple of instances.
“One thing our guys understand is that it’s something you earn and continue to earn,” Pelini said. “Just because you put the Blackshirt on doesn’t change anything. It should make you want to play that much harder, to live up to the standards that surround that shirt and tradition.
“It’s something our kids fully understand. They understand what it means to actually put one on.”
Michigan State came to Memorial Stadium with the nation’s No. 2-ranked defense. And the Spartans played well defensively. But Nebraska’s defense played better, allowing Michigan State 187 yards and a lone field goal. The performance was Blackshirt quality.
But “I put a lot of stock into practice more than what happens on Saturday,” said Pelini. “It’s a culmination of how you practice and prepare and timing. I really don’t care what people outside think about when or why you should give them out.
“It’s something you talk about as a staff, and when you feel like the time is right, you go for it.”
Pelini and his coaches determined the time was right.
“We talked a lot last week as a whole football team about how we play to a certain standard,” he said. “To me, that means practicing to a certain standard.
“Have we reached the standard that we want? No, we haven’t. But when you start heading in that direction, preparing well and doing the right things, to me, that’s a signal that guys get it.”
And as a result, they got Blackshirts.
“It was just draping over my locker,” Rome said.
Seeing it there was “probably the most exciting moment in my football career,” he said.