Published Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 12:01 am / Updated at 7:21 pm
football
Chatelain: Blackshirts are perfect way to jolt Huskers' brand

Two fourth-down stops in the red zone with the Gator Bowl on the line. Not a bad way to start the new year, right?

It's an even better way to spark a movement.

Nebraska's national brand needs a jolt. Bo Pelini needs to unify a fractured fan base. And the players themselves need a new edge. The answer? Go back to black.

Tuesday morning, I sat in with Damon Benning on 1620 AM, guest-hosting “Sharp and Benning in the Morning.” One topic raised my ire. Benning and a Husker fan were discussing how to modernize the Nebraska brand. How do you spruce up the program for outsiders without turning your back on tradition?

With apologies to proponents of alternate uniforms, my solution is to sell what you already have. Don't alienate the old guard. Don't innovate at the expense of the past. Blend the two together. Make 2014 the “Year of the Blackshirt.”

By 4 p.m., “Unsportsmanlike Conduct” co-host John Bishop had built upon the idea, suggesting a campaign called “Blackshirts for Life.” Push it on social media. Design apparel. Market the idea, not only to recruits, but to fans across the country.

It's a perfect time for so many reasons:

Ľ The Huskers have two NFL first-team All-Pros, Ndamukong Suh and Lavonte David, both of whom played for Pelini, both of whom are just entering their professional prime. What better representatives for Nebraska's potential?

Ľ For the first time since 2010, the Husker defense should be the strength of the team and Pelini has a bona fide All-America candidate in Randy Gregory.

Ľ Best of all, this fall is the 50th anniversary of assistant coach Mike Corgan's trip to a Lincoln sporting goods store to purchase black practice jerseys, a seemingly ordinary task that began a sacred tradition, known across college football.

Yet too often the past six years, Pelini's coaching staff has downplayed the Blackshirt, occasionally ignoring it altogether. Pelini rarely mentions it unless asked specifically. At times, it seems more a nuisance than a boost.

After the Huskers lost at Minnesota in October, the black practice jerseys disappeared for the rest of the season.

I don't believe one needs to wear a black jersey in practice to play good defense on Saturday. And I recognize the value of a team concept, where the second-string safety feels just as important as the All-America linebacker. But forget for a moment the details of who wears the jerseys and when. Focus on the big picture.

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This is low-hanging fruit for Pelini. This is an opportunity to build (and rebuild) relationships with fans and former players. Honor tradition by making it fresh again. Who wouldn't want to support that?

On game day in College Station, Texas, you can't turn your head without seeing a “12th Man” reference. The same should be true this fall at Nebraska. But it can't simply be a social media campaign — ŗ la “Red Out Around the World.” The head coach should lead the charge.

Host a Blackshirt barbecue this summer — Bo could even pick up the tab. Honor and recognize a different vintage defense each home Saturday. Bring in an old Blackshirt every week to speak to the defense — and publicize the message to fans. Assign each new Husker recruit, upon his arrival on campus, an old Blackshirt mentor for his four years.

Make video spots, disseminated via YouTube or Facebook, starring Blackshirts of different generations, together. Some could be funny, some inspirational. Show 30-second spots on HuskerVision (before each defensive possession?) featuring an old Blackshirt talking about the tradition — reminiscing about the day he earned his prize.

Some of these ideas aren't original. Some of this has already been done. But it needs to be presented as a package. Pelini needs to inspire a vision for the future. Get people excited about something again. I can't think of anything more appropriate than a fiery defensive coach, who wears his intensity on his sleeve, promoting back to black.

The best part? It's not a gimmick. It's not a fad.

The Blackshirt brand is just as hip as anything Nike has done at Oregon, only it's better because it's not manufactured or contrived. It's like a proven rock-and-roller who, during a three-hour concert, can play a great song written in 1972 or a great song written in 2012 (ahem, Bruce Springsteen).

It's authentic. It's genuine. It's timeless.

And as effective as the “Year of the Blackshirt” might be in uniting fans, the greatest benefit may come on the field. The campaign might help restore an aura of dominance — a swagger — to Nebraska's young defense. It might encourage players to compete for a legacy beyond themselves.

On the recruiting trail, it might give coaches a new foundation on which to promote the program. Seize that opportunity to sell Ndamukong and Lavonte. Make sure every defensive recruit knows their individual stories. Who they were before they came to NU. What Pelini did for them. Where they are now. This could be you!

Sell it properly and every defensive prospect from Miami to Seattle will think of a skull and crossbones when he sees Bo Pelini and Nebraska.

The lesson, kids, is simple: Nothing is cooler than tradition.

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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