OXFORD, Miss. -- 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 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.
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."
|The bear mascot was inspired by a William Faulkner story. (University of Mississippi)|
In the end, the smiling black bear inspired in part by longtime Oxford resident William Faulkner won out, defeating two other nominees. One was the "Rebel Land Shark," based on the "fins up" hand motion started by late football player Tony Fein. The other was "Hotty Toddy," a gray human-like character that aimed to personify a school cheer that begins: "Are you ready? Hell yes! Damn right! Hotty Toddy, gosh almighty! ... "
"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. More than 13,000 eligible voters voted in the final poll.
"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 a member of the Colonel Reb Foundation.
Brittany Garth, a student from Dallas, said she wished the school didn't have a mascot.
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"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.
Athletic 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 Faulkner, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist 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 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.