The new mascot of the University of Mississippi Rebels will be a black bear, officially replacing the goateed Southern gentleman "Colonel Reb" who was banished from the sidelines almost seven years ago.
Thursday's unveiling of the "Rebel Black Bear" is the latest move in the school's effort to distance itself from symbols of the old South.
The announcement came after a campuswide vote in February and months of polling. The bear beat out two other finalists, the Rebel Land Shark and something called the "Hotty Toddy," an attempt to personify the school cheer. The bear received 62 percent of the vote in the final poll.
"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 Porter, 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 voice in the selection.
"The fact that we were completely transparent through the process makes this a credible choice," New said in a news release.
That doesn't mean there wasn't griping along the way. In 1997, Ole Miss ended the waving of Confederate flags at sporting events. Last year, the band stopped playing the fight song, "From Dixie With Love," to discourage the fan chant, "The South will rise again."
And some of the colonel's faithful sought to derail the search for a new mascot by staging protests earlier this year and 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.
Athletics Director Pete Boone acknowledged that the vote "was an emotional process" and his department would begin the lengthy process of implementation, including marketing and communications.
"It's been a passionate topic and it's often evoked an emotional response - right or wrong. 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," he said.
The black bear is connected to Ole Miss through one of Oxford's famous residents, 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 landshark just because it was the sign our defense made after a big play, but the bear is fine, too," Harmon said.
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