Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/The Blackshirt Defense

Categories: Football No Place


Excerpted from Chapter 104, No Place Like Nebraska: Anatomy of an Era, Vol. 2 by Paul Koch



Anatomy of an Era: Final Chapter/The Blackshirt Defense



DEFENSE: a word whose Latin root means “a forbidding,” is an apt description for the Nebraska Blackshirts unit. Built around a front line and rush ends who were notorious for giving quarterbacks a case of the nervous twitches, the linebackers and the secondary backing them up were fast, fast, fast… and mean, too. Fielding a proverbial track team, this group was the perfect mix of brains and nastiness, wielding what used to be a former passing-situation defense with punishing, full-bore four down efficiency. They didn’t tackle you so much as run through you. They, like their leaders on that unit, could bring the hurt…

“Listen, we’re gonna change up our defense, we’re gonna play like a bunch of crazy bandits.”… “Okay, you’re not 320 lbs. anymore, you need to play at 285-290 lbs. And it’s all speed. Pin your ears back and just go!”  – Kevin Ramaekers

Toby Wright: I think that changed the whole mental state of our defense, because he’d knock the shit out of you, to put it plainly. So it started to be the game where everybody was trying to knock the living shit out of somebody, and when he came on it showed us it was possible. – Lorenzo Brinkley

The recruitment of speed played a huge part in the Blackshirt domination…

…what I’d done is kept statistics on our base package as opposed to the 4-3, because the guys didn’t want to do it. I was able to show after the year that we were actually more productive with the 4-3… Oklahoma took the ball and drove down the field against our base 5-2 defense, then we put in the substitution package and stopped them; They kicked a field goal. Next series, same thing. Finally, after that second drive, we put the substitution package in the whole time… the 4-3, with how we played it, fit our personnel better. – George Darlington

It used to be primarily our passing defense and then we started stopping guys running and passing, so it was kind of the whole transition with the defense and getting some faster guys in there. That was what really helped us, because the 5-2 defense was a little easy to play against. – Mike Anderson

…we got into an attacking defense and all of a sudden we had some guys at the defensive side of the ball with speed at every position. At the linebacker spot you had Ed Stewart, Doug Colman, Phil Ellis, Mike Anderson, these guys could all run …I think a lot of that credit has to go to Coach Osborne and Coach McBride for evolving and being willing to kind of step out of the mold. We were in the Big 8 and you thought you had to run the 50 defense to stop the run, and they stuck their neck out and decided to play a 4- 3 defense in a running conference, and it turned out it worked pretty well.          – Terry Connealy

They played so much faster. .. they were just in gaps shooting upfield -guys like Tomich and Wistrom and Donta Jones and all those guys- they were such good athletes that if you put them out on the end and just let them chase the quarterback around it was such a faster, more aggressive team. Instead of a team that read and reacted they were in your face making you react to what they were doing… Our defense just got so much more faster each year. And they just kept recruiting guys who were faster and faster, too, it seemed like.   – Zach Wiegert

Merging speed with attitude and tradition produced something special…

…there’s nothing like being able to do what the Blackshirts did… To be a part of something that was bigger than you, and you had the tradition of it all… at Nebraska I learned to fight for something and to live for something. I learned to be a part of an elite people who actually had earned the right to be who they were: The Blackshirts…   – Toby Wright

… there wasn’t a whole lot of weak spots. They had enough talent at the time that you just kind of went out and played as flawless as you can, because they were definitely going to take advantage of it if you screwed up. That was the deal with those teams there, they were so big and strong and fast. –Ben Rutz

We had some superior athletes, changed up some of the defensive schemes …the Ed Stewarts’, Jamel Williams’, Terrell Farley, those guys were extremely fast.                        – Darren Schmadeke

Then you get into the defensive backs, the Toby Wrights. Some of those guys could just fly! Increasing the speed at these positions, I think, improved us as a team, and people were in shock because of how fast we were at each position…  – Damon Schmadeke


(Photo by Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)


This crew changed some old perceptions on familiar meeting grounds…

(Miami) realized we were serious. After a while we earned their respect and they started calling us by our first names, as if we grew up together and we were childhood friends or something. It was like “Okay, now they’re starting to respect us here.”                       – Kareem Moss

… everybody thought our national championship run was over, and we took that personally as a defense. That elevated our game there. At the time people weren’t really looking at the defense as the identity of the team, it was pretty much “offense this, offense that.” That time when Tommie went down? It got personal. People had to realize that we were more than just an explosive offense. It was blue-collar and we would do anything we had to get the job done. – Troy Dumas

The elite unit had its own unique brand of leadership, starting at the top with Defensive Coordinator Charlie McBride:

…a motivator, a tough guy, he would tear your heart out but be the first guy there if you ever had a need. There was never any misunderstanding that he didn’t care for you, because you always knew he did …it would only make sense the leader of the Blackshirts be a little of a Blackshirt himself. – Trev Alberts

I was scared to death of him. (laughs) I’d sit in the back of the meeting room with the rest of the freshmen and just sweat bullets hoping that he wasn’t going to call me out…    – Jason Peter

Everybody wanted, deep down inside, everyone wanted to be a ‘Charlie McBride guy.’ That meant you were something. That was a hard circle to get into… Coach McBride, as a coach, he was a blue-collar guy. He was a roll-up-your-sleeves personality… he was always going between the dip and the gum and taking his teeth out and him barking at you. He would just do some crazy stuff, literally kicking these defensive linemen in the behinds. Charlie was blunt. And it’s funny now -but it wasn’t funny then… Take the NFL scouts: if you were messing up in practice he’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna tell the NFL scouts that you’re dumb as a tick and you can’t learn. And you mark my word, I’ll tell ‘em that.“ That was serious stuff, and you can laugh now, but believe me, those guys weren’t laughing then. It was serious business, man. Serious business. (laughing)              – Eric Stokes

The man knew how and when to press the right buttons…

Charlie was probably, in that group of coaches, kind of the roughest edge of any of them: verbally, vocally, physically. I’ve seen him on his tiptoes and scream at a guy face to face, whether it was Christian or Jason or Grant or Tomich, any of those guys. He would dress you down. But the next moment he’d have his arm on their shoulder telling them they did this and this right, and “cut the other crap out” again. (laughs) But the guys loved him. Talk to any of those guys. He was like total love/hate relationship sometimes. It was kind of fun, almost like seeing him go into an act sometimes. He knew what buttons he could press and what buttons he couldn’t press on others, and he would press them all. I think he really did have a little bit of an act he would go into… Charlie was a great teacher.   – Jerry Weber

The stuff he would do, man. He’d spit chew in our helmets, man… Just to do it. Just to do it! (laughs) He’d yell at us, grab us by the facemask, all kinds of stuff, man. It was the best… a military drill sergeant-kind of coach, but at the same time he’d love you like a dad loves a son. You always got that feeling, you knew that he cared about you. He’d say the meanest stuff to you… – Larry Townsend

But the details, he was a master at motivating people and pushing you beyond your limits. You thought, ‘I can’t do this,’ and he’d show you how to do it and he’d push you to do it. As rough and tough as he was, he always made me feel like I could walk through a brick wall, that there was nobody better than me, that there wasn’t an opponent who I didn’t feel I couldn’t kick his ass. The things he said, you couldn’t put in writing, “I can’t believe we gave you a f***king scholarship. This is a joke, you should be playing at Wayne State.” But then you go in the film room and he goes, “This is a great job. Step here with your foot, reach with your left hand here… “ He’d show you ways to beat your opponent. He was a great teacher of the game and an unbelievable motivator. – Kevin Ramaekers

With a knack for motivating his minions…

I always loved Charlie McBride. That was one guy who could get me fired up before every game. He just knew what to say, when to say it and how to say it. He would get us playing for teammates who were injured, playing for such and such family member, you know, whether they had a sickness or death in that family. We’d leave that locker room literally crying, ready to kill for each other. – John Reece

Some of the things he would tell us, how “we have an opportunity to make history here, why don’t we go out and do it?” And he had the chew in his mouth and he’d turn red and throw his arms down to his sides and scream at the top of his lungs. You just had to feel it. – Kareem Moss

“We prepared all week. You’re gonna play well, but don’t let these guys come in and embarrass you in front of your family.” I’ll never forget that, it was something else. I remember him also saying, “The quarterback? I want you guys to be all over him like Jack the Bear.” …He was kind of intimidating a little bit with his presence, but very confident, and he had a whole lot of respect from the defensive team. Very intense.        -Darren Schmadeke

His boys on the Defensive Line were a rough and tumble crew…

And that’s another thing about Nebraska when we played: we’d shake your hand before the game and all, but when it came time to play we’d poke you in the eye …Grant Wistrom, Jared Tomich, the Peter Brothers, they were ruthless. These guys off the field were just a bunch of teddy bears… but when you see these guys on the field and you look in their eyes, they’re ruthless. On the field to off the field, they were two different people.  – Michael Booker

Chad May was the (Kansas State) quarterback back then, and him moaning and groaning after the game. And I remember Christian running off the field and had his left hand wrapped around his right index finger about halfway down, so you only saw half of his right index finger. He’s grinning, and he said, “I had my finger this far in his f***ing eye!”    – Aaron Taylor

I just loved to play the game and wherever we were going to play it against whomever. I just wanted to go out and play football and hit people …and try to hit them as humanly hard as possible. – Ed Stewart

The (Peter brothers) just demanded that you play good and hard. If you weren’t going to play hard around them they didn’t want you around ‘em. Same thing with Wistrom, he was that way.   – Charlie McBride

I remember McBride talking before we were getting ready to play, and basically his message was like this: “We’re gonna set ‘The Crazies’ on them, and then the defensive backs will essentially just cover and do their job.” (laughs) It was true, it was just that blunt, “We’ll set them loose and you guys cover them and end of story.” When you had Wistrom and the two Peter brothers and Jared Tomich, I have no idea what was going on with those four guys; they were out there. And not to mention, when I first got there we had John Parrella and Kevin Ramaekers. You had some clowns, now. They were birds on a wire, they were walking a fine line sometimes with those guys…  – Eric Stokes

…all you had to do was look at the defensive line, and they were leading us. And they were about as mean and nasty as you probably get. If you’re not following suit after that? After those guys? You might as well go sit down somewhere. We just had that blue-collar mentality where we were going to be in your face all day. I was very happy to have those guys in front of me because they made my job a heck of a lot easier.            – Tony Veland

How did the Nebraska Defense differentiate itself from a motivational standpoint? It was a unified group that played for each other…

Charlie would talk to us in team meetings, “You eleven on the field are like brothers. Everyone behind you is a brother to you. You have to look out for each other, take care of each other.”   – Kevin Ramaekers


Barron Miles, John Reece and Mike Minter
Barron Miles, John Reece and Mike Minter


…what I always loved about him, too, was that when one of your teammates makes mistakes, how you better not be the one who goes and chews him out when he makes a mistake. Your job is not to go and basically chew them out for making the mistake, your job is to put your arm around ‘em, pick ‘em up, to encourage em, to say, “I got your back.” To say, “Forget about it” or whatever.“ “Let us coaches deal with the corrections, right?” But he always talked about fighting a war and being in a foxhole, and as a teammate our job was to pick up our comrade. It wasn’t to berate them or put them down, but to put an arm around them.   – David Alderman

His methods of motivating were never about individuals when it came to football. It’s about the team and about the guy next to you, “In those times when you’ve got to dig deep for something extra, you think about those players next to you or a family member.” And he would have something where you dedicate each game to somebody in your life -and you didn’t even have to tell the person- but you knew that. It was something extra when you were really gassed that would just pop into your head, like an autopilot, and get you revved up. And Coach McBride was just… you wanted to perform for him. – Jared Tomich

He never seemed to let off the throttle, whether on the field or off of it…

He wanted his players to play at a real high level, 24/7, never take a play off… if I was tired or didn’t feel like going as hard, they didn’t let you do that at Nebraska.”You’re not taking any plays off,” Coach McBride would always say. He was demanding and firm, yet had a great sense of humor, which made him such a great coach                         – Jason Scott Jenkins

…they shaved their heads and they nicked them. And I remember Kevin and those guys, Christian Peter, just sitting there in the chair with all the nicks on their head and bleeding down their heads. You’d just look at them and shake your head and go, ‘Something isn’t right about some of these guys.’ (laughs)

-Bruce Moore


Jason Peter  (Photo by Albert Dickson/Sporting News via Getty Images)


…The motor never stopped with that guy. If you had a tank that was half full you were not going to play for Charlie.   – Kevin Ramaekers

…they scored on us like three times- and I remember Coach McBride walked over and he kicked Ramaekers or something. He ripped into Ramaekers and he made him take off his blackshirt and he looked at us and said, “I don’t give a hell! I’ll get rid of all you guys’ Blackshirts!” And we’re standing in the huddle and Ramaekers is the only one without a blackshirt, and we’re all crying over him like a bunch of kids who got sent to their room, “You better get it together, man!” And it really defined who we were. We really went crazy after that, big time…    – Toby Wright

Hold on, now. This is where it gets interesting. The rest of the defensive coaching staff was a grab bag of psyches and bents:

(Osborne) got guys to do the fire & brimstone: you had Coach McBride and Coach Bohl while he was there. Now, Coach Samuel was very calm- but they did it in a way that was still professional and in a manner that still reflected the philosophies of Osborne. – Mark Gilman

I loved the fact that the defensive side of the staff was so aggressive. Everybody from Darlington, who was pretty aggressive in his techniques, and you had Coach Samuel and Nelson Barnes, you had McBride and Coach Bohl and Kevin Steele. How about that nutjob? He was awesome. And Coach Bohl, great assistant …So you had a good group of coaches over there that was just relentless and aggressive. And as far as coaching-wise, they did a hell of a job of coaching these guys up …you always had admiration for them because they had their guys ready, be it practice or game time, all the time.                   – Aaron Taylor

I remember Kevin Steele and Charlie McBride letting a couple of guys have it. I remember we were just starting practice and I was happy I wasn’t on that side of the ball. They were pretty animated.   – Tony Veland


Coaches Darlington and Samuel


The longest tenured assistant was Defensive Backs Coach George Darlington…

He was very concerned with stats. Very, very concerned… we’d have to sit around and wait until there’s like ninety seconds left in the game before we’d get in.                             – David Alderman

He’s kind of interesting, I don’t want to say a ‘complex individual.’ It was really kind of hard to connect with him in some ways. Here was a guy who would listen to Rush Limbaugh and drink his Snapple, a real big Conservative, so it was kind of interesting for relationships. Then he was an older coach, so it was an interesting kind of relationship…   – Eric Stokes

A student of the game, with an exacting eye…

He was very good at reviewing game film, as well. We watched a lot of game film in his office, watching game film and critiquing routes as well. Very meticulous, very good at giving technique and suggestions. He was a little different person than Coach Brown, a little more down-to-business.   – Darren Schmadeke

It’s a cerebral game for him.  – Troy Dumas

…he was very, very high strung… Coach D. could be challenging at times, but he’s a very, very good coach. He knows his football… He wanted you to be perfect, and if it’s not perfect he’d let you know… he pushed us for the best. He wanted us to be the best, not only in the Big 8, but in the country. He made sure that every step was right, every technique was right, he was a perfectionist.  – Kenny Wilhite

With an extremely creative mind for defensive tendencies…

…he was just a classic. He was a good box guy up in the pressbox. George could come up with 40,000 different coverages, seriously. In fact, George’s brain sometimes would work too fast for what we were doing. He was such a genius on the board, he was almost ahead of the college coaches. Tom would have to reign him in, because the guy could X and O. He’d come up with more creative things on the greaseboard… we only had 20 hours per week to learn the stuff, so Tom had to reign him in now and then.         – Chad Stanley


Barron Miles
Not big enough to play corner? Not exactly.


Though he didn’t always see eye to eye with the student-athletes…

He was laid back and stuck in his ways. He’s a great coach, and if he said it was going to work he was gonna keep pushing so in the end it works. He had a firm grasp on his game… very, very stubborn… Coach D had his favorites, but for the most part it was a job. But being an adult and being older now, he did what was best for the team. Overall, he was a great coach. He gave me the opportunity to play, but he was very stubborn.            – Michael Booker

That’s the type of guy George was, kind of brash, and whatever was on the top of his mind was what was coming out, “I’ll think about what I said later.” And I knew kind of how to deal with that, but most guys he would rub the wrong way…    -John Reece

Nor with his fellow coaching mates…

Coach Darlington would always pipe up and say a few things. He’d speak his mind and go on a few times sometimes. And some of the other coaches wouldn’t always agree, but he’d always put his two cents in. – Damon Schmadeke

Darlington was definitely fired up and opinionated, didn’t care what he said around anybody and wasn’t going to apologize for anything he said. Anytime he got on guys nothing was ever said with malice or anything that might come off that way. It was an honest staff. – Chris Norris


Tony Samuel
Tony Samuel (center) with William Washington (right) and William Glen Washington.


Then you had the smoothest operator of them all, a buffering agent to the oftentimes acidic pH of the defensive side of the staff: Outside Linebackers Coach Tony Samuel…

…he was another one that was just an unbelievable motivator and gave the most subtle instruction you’ve ever had. He wasn’t a yeller, wasn’t a get-in-your-face or anything else coach. It was just, “This is how you do it. And you go do it.” And it was so simple, it was scary. – Jared Tomich

…Coach Samuel, one thing about him was that he always seemed like he’d keep his composure. He never got out of the pocket. He’d never break his mold, unlike Coach Darlington or Coach McBride or Coach Steele…    – Michael Booker

A great evaluator of talent, he had a way of simplistically churning out the game-changers…

Utterly different coaching style, so much more laid back. He was interesting… when you get over to Coach Samuel the technique really was so watered down, it wasn’t near as driven as, “You’ve got to step here, put your hand here, do this…” It was a couple of things he taught over and over, and then the rest of it was really kind of freelancing, almost… Basically, you were just flying as hard as you can go to the ball and trying to make the play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. The previous defense we were just pretty much trying to read and just kind of stay on the line of scrimmage the whole time. This one? We’re pressing it three yards deep and trying to put as much pressure on the quarterback as we could through that process.      – Bruce Moore

Tony Samuel was such a good technician and coach… – Chad Stanley

…was more laid back, and technique-wise it was more footwork that anything.       – Troy Dumas

Coach Tony Samuel with David White, Trev Alberts and Travis Hill

With a knack for communicating encouragement, having played the position himself…

…he understood the wars and the culture, he knew exactly what we were going through, what it was like at the end of the day, as a freshman or as a senior, the responsibility that position entailed. I think he understood people and his great gift was having a great ability to read people, to understand what motivated them. He never treated every single guy the same. He had that ability to assess what our needs were and he tried to fill those… He didn’t yell and scream and try to protect himself from the defensive coordinator or the head coach. He had a very, very effective style and I would have run through a wall for him.   – Trev Alberts

Coach Tony Samuel really knew how to relate to me, too… personality-wise, we were a whole lot alike, very competitive but laid back in a sense, and he let me know that you can still get a message across to a person in more than one way.     – Lorenzo Brinkley

Then you had the hot mess of the bunch: Linebackers Coach Kevin Steele, who was followed shortly thereafter by Craig Bohl in ’95 when he left the university…

Pretty intense. From one moment crazy-mad to the smooth side of himself where he likes to pump you up. (laughs)…Yeah, (Steele) was a piece of work. He was a good coach. He knew what he was talking about… – Aaron Penland

…we used to call him ’Sybil‘ because we’d be upstairs in meetings and we’d be laughing and joking, and five minutes later he’s just ready to come unglued! …And when they blew the whistle to switch the team’s (practice) work stations all the linebackers would find each other and would go, “Sybil’s here,” and you just knew that you better crank it up, because he is gonna be after somebody. So that’s all you had to say, “Sybil’s here”, and everyone knew. – Troy Branch



A man who often came off as the ‘Anti-Osborne’…

He was an ass, you know? The first day we met he said, “I’m not here to be your dad. I’m not here to be your friend. I’m here to be your coach. If you don’t like it get out of my room right now.” That’s a true story. Truest line he ever said. It was true, you wanted to kill him but you respected the hell out of him because he was a great coach…   – Phil Ellis

…if we were slacking he’d come into the huddle and grab our facemasks and shake us around, bumping up against us and pushing us around. That guy was a catch, yeah. I never became really tight with him. He was pretty intense. I just remember always being kind of intimidated, he had that ‘crazy’ thing going for him too, where he could snap.    – Joel Wilks

Coach Kevin Steele, it was one thing to take an ass-chewing, but this guy was really berating. He was like a nasty fourteen year-old girl… Yeah, he was just that way… All the coaches there were very positive, very supportive. Then you took a guy like Coach Steele. Bottom line, he was just a prick. – Jon Pederson

Whose abrasive style often created hard feelings…

The thing you didn’t like was when a guy yelled at you and didn’t tell you why they were yelling at you, who didn’t explain why they were yelling at you and ignored you. Those are the ones that you always had to watch out for. – Doug Colman

…he was very, very intense… He’d get right in your face, an inch from your face and scream at you from the top of his lungs… You just kind of had to learn to work and operate with him.  – Darren Schmadeke

…you don’t necessarily need to be hollered at all the time. So we just grew really tired of it. I graduated… in the spring of ’93, so I played my senior year with my degree… and Mike (Anderson) and Darren (Williams) and I had gotten together and we decided, ”You know what, we’re sick of being hollered at. Here’s what we’re going to do: I’m graduating early and Mike and Darren could have busted their humps and just graduated in August and just be done. And we’re just leaving. And he’s going to lose his senior linebackers.” – Troy Branch


Coach Kevin Steele


Perhaps unintentionally, Kevin Steele played a large part in the beginnings of greater team cohesiveness…

His methods were a little odd, but it really helped us as linebackers to become a pretty close-knit group. Every time I run into guys I played with, we all kind of went through the same thing, so we all have that bond.    – Mike Anderson

…he was probably the best X and O coach that I’ve ever been around, the best technique coach I’d ever been around. But he had a way of making you feel like you were just a turd, you know? He didn’t make you feel that great, so it really caused a lot of issues, a lot of animosity among the players, against him. And that’s kind of why the linebacker corps was the closest knit group at that time on the team. He would yell at you and berate you in front of people, and you never really felt like the guy was being upfront with you. You always felt like you maybe had to look over your shoulder a little bit…    – Mike Anderson



But he was highly respected despite his personal mannerisms…

Intense. In-tense. (He) was an excellent coach as far as excellent teacher and strategist about what we were supposed to do… – Ed Stewart

…was a whole different type of coach, but a couple of the other guys? They respected him, but they couldn’t stand him. You’d have to ask the linebackers. They’d know more. He was a more of the ‘get in your face, criticize you-kind of guy,’ that was his nature. – Mike Roberts

The intensity: you just fed off of that. It’s infectious…   – Darin Erstad

That defensive staff was a curious crew. Hot under the collar and ready to rumble, they knew what they wanted and by hook or crook, hugging or cursing or even a swift kick in the pants, they were going to get a solid defensive stand out of the youngsters week after week. Now, what you just read didn’t focus much on defensive scheme, I get that. And it may not have come off as very sexy, either. But that was the nature of the beast: the Blackshirts simply came at you fast, came at you hard, came at you in bunches, and came at you often. They brought the hurt to anyone with an inkling of advancing the ball. It was a brotherhood resembling a street gang, and they played for keeps.


Copyright @ 2013 Thermopylae Press. All Rights Reserved.

Photo Credits : Unknown Original Sources/Updates Welcomed

Author assumes no responsibility for interviewee errors or misstatements of fact.


Summary Chapter to be continued…..