Husker fans know the both the Blackshirt and black shirt tradition. " The Blackshirts" is the name by which Nebraska's defense is known. "Black shirts" are typically awarded to defensive players who show the highest level of play - not all starters receive them.
Much has been made about the black shirts this season, whether from fans and the media. Both wondered (obsessed?) about when they would be handed out, if at all. Pelini waited until the night before the Texas Tech game to give out the blackshirts, and the team responded by playing poorly. It's not a cause and affect issue - the blackshirts didn't cause the team to get heady and fall down, but it's obvious that Pelini made the move then to attract as little attention as possible.
Is being awarded a blackshirt special to the defensive players? Yeah, you bet it is. It means they get to join a pretty elite group with a great history. There's some value in awarding hard work, but I wonder it the tradition fits with Pelini's mentality as a head coach.
The shirts appear to be nothing more than an irritation to him. He was asked about them repeatedly before he handed them out. After the Texas Tech game, some reporter had the gall (or the stupidity) to ask him about them again. His response:
"Quit worrying about the Blackshirts. Get over it," coach Bo Pelini said. "We didn't play well enough. It had nothing to do with Blackshirts or yellow shirts or white shirts, or whatever the hell it is.
"We got our butts kicked. It's not about Blackshirts. It's about executing on game day when we're out there in red and white, and we didn't do that."
Pelini's response isn't surprising. Fans might look at the total yardage output and convince themselves that holding Texas Tech 262 yards under their average counted for something, but they would be overlooking the opening drive during which the defense twice allowed Tech to convert on third and long. Tech converted on a fourth and one in the second quarter, gaining 22 yards on an outside run which then lead to another Red Raider touchdown. Then there was the 58-yard pass that allowed Tech to get a field goal just before half time.
Add to those the defensive penalties, and the game wasn't a stellar performance. It's not that the defense played horrible. They didn't. But they didn't play like an elite unit either, the kind that wins Big 12 championships and gets into BCS bowl games. Even Ndamukong Suh didn't feel that the defense played well enough to warrant keeping the black shirts, and Suh obviously knows something about performing at a very high level.
Fans seem anxious about the black shirts, as if by handing them out the defense has assumed elite status. This is important, too, as the symbolic nature of the award is a sign the defense is doing well. It's something fans can hang onto, something to cheer about. Without that, what's the point in being a fan?
The media seems just as obsessed with them, possibly because it gives them something to write about that they know fans will connect with, but more likely because it's difficult to write much about the team when Pelini gives them so little meat with which to write.
My problem with the black shirts is they don't seem to fit Pelini's mode of operation. After watching him coach for the past season and a half, it's clear Pelini expects effort on a consistent basis. You don't have to look much further than his twitter bio to understand his philosophy:
The secret to success is constancy of purpose
Translation - if you're not going 100% all of the time, you're not going to be successful. It's not that difficult to understand, but like most things in life, easy to say and damned hard to do. It takes quite a bit of tenacity to work hard all of the time, with emphasis on ALL.
When you award an honor to a player, it elevates them to an elite status. It places them at the top of a hierarchy, at the top of the organization. Yet Pelini has shown that he's not above sitting players on the bench if they're not performing well, even it it's a decision made during a game. Phillip Dillard replacing Will Compton during the Tech game was sign of that, as was Zac Lee's benching in favor of Cody Green. The week before, Niles Paul and Menelik Holt were benched for a while in favor of Brandon Kinnie and Antonio Bell.
Forget that some of those guys are on offense - it's the hierarchy that counts. It's clear the only hierarchy that matters to Pelini is who is performing at the highest level right now, and "right now" is literally right now, whether it be during a game or at practice. Awarding some guys black shirts because they've done something well in the past doesn't fit with that concept.
As we saw Saturday, this team is capable of playing extremely well some of the time. Until that's become "all of the time", then there's still a mental mold to be formed. And the last thing Pelini wants these guys to think is that they've achieved something because up to this point, they haven't.
The Blackshirt tradition - the name by which the Husker defense is known - should stay and it will. But perhaps it's time for the black shirts to go. They don't seem to fit the mold of the current head coach. The tradition appears forced, and if that's how Bo Pelini feels, then it's a tradition we should consider living without.