OXFORD — After all that, it’s a bear.
It has been more than a decade since the University of Mississippi began stripping away its images of the Old South. Confederate battle flags — the “Stars and Bars” — were first to go. Next was mascot “Colonel Reb,” the goateed Southern planter who cheered on the Rebels from the sidelines since 1979.
After seven years and plenty of bickering, his successor was named Thursday: “Rebel Black Bear” won 62 percent of the vote in a final poll and will become the new face of the school’s athletic programs on the field.
University administrators say the names “Ole Miss” and “Rebels” will not change.
Tradition dies hard in Oxford, where tens of thousands of fans turn out in ties and sundresses on fall Saturdays for elaborate tailgate parties in “The Grove” before football games. An unofficial motto is: “We may lose a game, but we never lose a party.”
Picking a replacement became a matter of statewide import and the subject of online pranks, like the suggestion of a “rebel” from the Star Wars movies, Admiral Ackbar.
In the end, the smiling black bear inspired in part by longtime Oxford resident William Faulkner won out, defeating two other nominees: the “Rebel Land Shark,” based on the “fins up” hand motion started by late Rebel football player Tony Fein; and the “Hotty Toddy,” a gray human-like character that aimed to personify a school cheer.
“I know there was a lot of people emotionally invested in Colonel Reb and everybody might not completely agree with the bear, but I think everyone can be proud of how our students went about the process,” said Sparky Reardon, the university’s dean of students.
Margaret Ann Morgan, a co-chairman of the student mascot selection committee, said the bear was recommended because it had a Mississippi connection, would appeal to children and would be unique to the Southeastern Conference.
Ty New, the other committee chairman, said everyone in the university’s community — including faculty, students, alumni and season ticketholders — had a say.
“The fact that we were completely transparent through the process makes this a credible choice,” New said in a news release.
Some of the colonel’s faithful staged protests earlier this year and attempted to derail the search for a new mascot in the last few weeks by gathering signatures to make Colonel Reb one of the choices.
“I think it’s hypocrisy. I think the fans of Ole Miss still want Colonel Reb. We have a petition with 3,500 signatures of students who still want Colonel Reb as their mascot and that’s the way it should be,” said Brian Ferguson, a 2007 graduate who is also a member of the Colonel Reb Foundation.
Brittany Garth, a student from Dallas, said she wished the school didn’t have a mascot.
“I just think it’s kind of dumb. Why is our mascot a bear when we’re the Rebels? It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. That’s why I didn’t vote. None of the three choices made any sense,” Garth said.
Athletics Director Pete Boone acknowledged that the vote “was an emotional process” and his department would begin the lengthy process of marketing the new mascot.
“It’s been a passionate topic and it’s often evoked an emotional response — right or wrong,” he said. “Change is certainly difficult. But I appreciate the passion from our people. They say indifference is the worst emotion out there, and I don’t think we’re guilty of that.”
The black bear is connected to Ole Miss through one of the state’s famous sons, Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, who penned “The Bear.” In it, Old Ben stands as a symbol of pride, strength and toughness. The tale of the “teddy bear” originated with the story that President Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear on a Mississippi hunt in 1902.
Earnest Harmon, a freshman fullback from Macon, said he’s fine with the bear.
“A lot of the guys on the football team liked the land shark just because it was the sign our defense made when after a big play, but the bear is fine, too,” Harmon said.
Though licensing of Colonel Reb’s image ended this summer, he can still be found on bumper stickers, lapel pins and other merchandise on display at Rebel games. A variation of the colonel first appeared in the 1930s in a yearbook. The image of the white character in a red wide-brimmed hat and tuxedo, leaning on a cane, is believed to have been based on a black man named Blind Jim Ivy, who attended most of the school’s athletic events, according to school historian David Sansing. The colonel made the official transition to the field in 1979.
Renderings of the new mascot show the burly black bear wearing a blue sports jacket for appearances on the campus and a dressed in a football jersey or a basketball uniform for games.
Whether Rebel Black Bear will be accepted is still unknown.
Roy Yarbrough, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania who consults with schools on choosing new mascots and symbols, said Ole Miss could spend $100,000 or more for costumes, letterhead and marketing fees.
He said there’s still a risk the bear will be rejected, citing the example of a school in Pekin, Ill., that once had a racial epithet for Chinese people as its mascot. They changed it in the 1980s, but it’s still a sore issue.
“If no one accepts the new mascot, Colonel Reb could make a comeback,” he said.
More details as they are available.
Staff and wire reports