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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“If no one accepts the new mascot, Colonel Reb could make a comeback,” he said.