OXFORD – It was a bear of a process.
The University of Mississippi’s effort to create a new sidelines mascot to replace Colonel Rebel culminated Thursday with the announcement of Rebel Black Bear as the top pick for the post.
“We selected the Rebel Black Bear because it was supported through the entire process and was the lead runner in the final poll,” said Margaret Ann Morgan, committee co-chair. “It has a Mississippi connection, is timeless, appeals to children, is unique to the SEC and fits the other characteristics established in the initial focus groups.”
Rebel Black Bear’s debut is promised for sometime in 2011, after athletic actors are recruited and trained to perform in the yet-to-be-created costume.
Michael Thompson, senior associate athletics director for marketing and communications, said he hopes for a spring launch.
“It would be another long summer if …,” he mused, “but we have to get it right the first time.”
Some 62 percent of the more than 13,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni and football season ticketholders indicated some level of support for the bear in the poll that ended Tuesday. The Rebel Land Shark drew support from 56 percent of respondents, but the muscleman Hotty Toddy caricature polled positively with only 42 percent.
Despite the new mascot, the team nickname will remain Rebels.
Colonel Reb was retired from the sidelines in 2003 in the face of some people’s perceptions that the caricature, often assumed to be an Old South plantation owner, was racially insensitive and did not reflect Ole Miss’ current reality.
Joseph Stinchcomb, a junior in exercise science from Atlanta, and an African-American, wasn’t thrilled with the change.
“I wasn’t really opposed to Colonel Reb, but I think they could have spent more time thinking about mascots,” he said. “A patriot would have been nice: A patriot was a rebel against English rule.”
Buck Morris, a freshman in anthropology from Memphis, was more direct.
“I do not like it. It’s like the Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears – why not just the Ole Miss Rebels?” he asked. “Do you see any black bears around here? I’d even take Hotty Toddy over that.”
Soon after the announcement, former Oxford mayor Richard Howorth tried to make a little joke about it during a political rally, saying he was “proud to be in a community of black bears.”
Resounding “boos” came up from the crowd.
A man in a Colonel Reb costume posed for photos with rally attenders.
Megan McBeth, a freshman public policy leadership major from Brandon, said she would prefer Colonel Reb’s return but that she’ll get past the issue eventually.
“The bear won, so I guess I’ll have to deal with it,” she said. “Right now we’re pretty upset about it, but hopefully we’ll pull together.”
A few people are optimistic about the new mascot.
“I’m happy; I love it,” said Dave Tatum, an insurance broker from Oxford. “Once they draw a decent character, and not a Teddy bear, I think they’ll like him. It’s unique in the SEC; it’s bringing us into the 21st Century.”
Dr. Charles Reagan Wilson, professor of history and Southern Studies at Ole Miss, also was delighted.
“Faulkner’s ‘The Bear’ gives it a literary, cultural element,” he said. “There’s the famous Teddy Roosevelt teddy bear, so it figures very prominently in the state. If you want a mascot that’s going to be a vigorous representation, a bear is a very vigorous fighter. It’s got the native Mississippi element they were looking for.”
Wilson Roberts, a retired Oxford real estate agent, sees a public relations disaster in the making.
“I think those fans are going to boo so big, it’s going to rattle the stadium the first time that black bear comes out,” he said.
Coincidentally, the announcement came two days before Ole Miss plays Alabama, a team known for its legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. But that didn’t seem to bother anyone in Oxford.
Reed Martz, an Oxford lawyer who holds degrees from Ole Miss but roots for the Crimson Tide, said he hadn’t even considered that conflict.
“As an Alabama fan, I’m not going to make fun of any team whose mascot doesn’t have the clearest connection to its team name,” Martz said. “Ole Miss has more of a connection to bears than Alabama does to elephants.”
Roberts said, “I don’t care what Alabama thinks. It’s not them that’s afflicted with this – it’s us.”
Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal