By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – When Michael Thompson says Ole Miss fans are important to him, he means it. All of them.
The athletics director for communications and marketing, much of Thompson’s attention over the last half year has been in bringing “Rebel,” the school’s new black bear mascot, into the public.
Within that effort, there’s a certain segment of the fan base that is most important, and it’s not the group that controls the family’s discretionary spending.
It’s the children.
This spring Rebel made what appeared to be a slow and careful entry into Ole Miss athletics with a handful of appearances, all of them with children.
The bear visited children’s hospitals in Jackson and Memphis and a couple of schools in Oxford as well as making his campus debut on the weekend of the spring football game.
“It was more than about subtly introducing him and being patient with adult fans. More importantly, it was really trying to connect with children,” Thompson said.
Rebel attended the April 17 baseball game against Kentucky and not the spring football game because there was a better children’s opportunity with baseball. A baseball kids’ club event was already in the works at Swayze Field that day.
“There were two people in left field who booed for about 10 seconds,” Thompson said. “That was about the end of it.”
After all, how do you boo children?
“Our adult fans saw the enthusiasm, the smiles and laughter of the children. It’s hard to boo that,” Thompson said.
Whether fans’ discontent is expressed vocally or repressed, Thompson knows it’s there with some, knows that replacing tradition – in this case the gentlemanly southern plantation owner Col. Reb – is never easy or embraced by all.
The administration felt the disassociation was necessary for the university’s image, however, and Ole Miss had been without an on-field mascot since 2003.
The uproar over Col. Reb’s retirement made national headlines.
“I’m not an alumni, so maybe I have a different perspective,” said Tupelo youth minister Chad Thompson, no relation to Michael Thompson. “I think the whole thing was overblown. This is good marketability with the kids. Once it settles down I don’t see any major issues with (the mascot).”
A native of Hickory Flat, Thompson attends many Ole Miss sporting events, often with some combination of his four boys – ages 8 and under – tagging along.
The children are the people Michael Thompson wants to reach most.
The end of Col. Reb on the field was announced the summer prior to Eli Manning’s senior football season, and Ole Miss athletics rocked along with no great upheaval.
But something was missing, Michael Thompson said, subtle though it might have been.
After students voted for the creation of a mascot – The vote did not include the option of bringing back Col. Reb – Thompson became the spokesperson in advance of what eventually became “Rebel” the black bear.
“I didn’t believe this before, necessarily, but having worked on this project for the last six months, I see the affect mascots have on kids,” he said. “If you don’t have one, you’re missing a huge opportunity to connect with that age group. You and I connect with things we see on the field or on the court, in the Grove with friends. Kids don’t connect with the same things.”
With that in mind it’s not surprising that Rebel’s’ Grove Bowl weekend debut did not include what many consider the crown jewel of the event – the football game. Baseball was seen as a better fit.
Since Mike Bianco became head baseball coach at Ole Miss in 2001, he has made a conscious effort to make the program family friendly.
Kids run the bases after Sunday games, win or lose, and players sign autographs and pose for pictures – win or lose.
“It’s the nature of baseball,” said Bianco, a father of five. “We’re not so far away. We’re touchable. Fans feel a connection with the team.”
A big supporter
Bianco is an enthusiastic supporter of Rebel, drawing back on some other famous between-inning entertainers.
“My hope is that the mascot will be more involved with baseball. I’d like to see him kind of like the Philly Fanatic or the San Diego Chicken,” he said. “The way the game is played, there are 18 spaces between play where things like that can happen.”
Bianco said the national news, the intense loyalty from some fans for Col. Reb, the discussions that followed, were never distracting.
He praised the administration for its handling of the mascot, from the student vote, to the planning and implementation.
“It was something the students obviously wanted, and that’s why we’re all here,” he said. “Sometimes we forget that.”
After an experimental spring, a soft entry so to speak, followed by summer, the mascot’s public visibility will hit a different gear in football season.
There will be no holding back. Beginning with the season opener against BYU at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Sept. 3, Rebel will have a full schedule.
Thompson is light on the details for exactly what that means. He wouldn’t say if there will be a special introduction ceremony for Rebel, or if he will just appear unannounced in the Grove.
“It’s about the connection with children. I can’t stress that enough,” says Thompson, who has a 1-year-old daughter, McLean.
With that, Chad Thompson is right on board.
“Some people wouldn’t be happy with it if it was the best concept ever brought forth,” he said. “When you haven’t had one, you’re missing out on a certain aspect. For the kids, this is great.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600