It was really just about needing practice jerseys.
The year was 1964, and Bob Devaney's Husker football team wanted some contrasting jerseys to distinguish the defensive players from the offensive players. Black was the color that assistant coach Mike Corgan happened to pick up at a local equipment store.
Defensive coaches George Kelley and Jim Ross turned simple practice jerseys into something that players hungered for by only awarding the jerseys to the first-team defensive players. Local news sources picked up the term and by 1978, the current one-worded spelling had stuck.
The distribution of the jerseys has changed over the years. Under Devaney, jerseys were handed out at the beginning of practice and collected at the end. Jerseys were continually fought for and earned by players, keeping the hunger for the position of first-team defender high.
Under Tom Osborne, the jerseys were handed out at the end of preseason practice. In addition, player names and numbers showed up on the black tops.
Now, under Head Coach Bo Pelini, the awarding of Blackshirts has taken a different route. Coach Pelini withholds the black practice jerseys until a strong defensive performance during a game.
His philosophy is simple: "Blackshirts are earned on the field."
No matter when those heralded black jerseys show up in the lockers of Husker defenders, the aura around them remains the same. Those practice tops have come to signify much more than who the first-team defenders are. The term "Blackshirts" has become associated with a hard-nosed toughness, strength and determination.
The Blackshirts deliver big hits, big plays and big stops. Names like Rich Glover, Grant Wistrom, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Peter and Trev Alberts still resonate in the minds of Husker fans. Few things at Nebraska are more legendary than the Blackshirts.
It's a good thing Bob Devaney's defenders needed some practice jerseys.
Special thanks to Mike Babcock's "History of the Blackshirts" article on Huskers.com for historical information.