Ole Miss fans will have a new mascot to cheer with along the sidelines when the 2018 football season kicks off. Rebel the Black Bear is headed for retirement, Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter announced Friday, giving credence and closure to a nearly decade-old student movement.
“I’m excited to announce that we will move forward with the Landshark as the official mascot and retire Rebel the Bear,” Vitter said in a statement Friday. Vitter said Friday’s announcement served to officially retire Rebel the Black Bear. The Landshark will make its on-field debut Sept. 1, 2018, when the Rebels kick off the 2018 season with a game against Texas Tech in Houston.
Vitter sent the official letter to all faculty, staff, students and alumni a week after more than 4,100 students voted in an Associated Student Body-sponsored poll gauging student support for the Landshark. Less than 20 percent of all students enrolled across each University of Mississippi campus voted in the poll, which showed that 81 percent of responding students supported the change to the Landshark as the school’s official mascot. In addition to this student input, administrators met with executive committees of alumni, faculty, staff and graduate student groups to help finalize their decision.
“After we received positive support and endorsements from these stakeholder groups, which was completed this past Thursday, we were excited to share this tremendous news with the entire Ole Miss family,” Vitter told The Daily Mississippian. “We made this decision in the same way we make all of our decisions — in the interest of what is best for the future of our university and our students. We are focused upon moving forward with a mascot that unifies and inspires, and it is clear that over the past seven years, the Ole Miss family has chosen the Landshark and ‘Fins Up.'”
Vitter wrote in his letter that Ole Miss Athletics will be responsible for “designing, developing, and launching the Landshark mascot” and reiterated the Landshark’s 2018 football season debut. Michael Thompson, senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing, said Athletics will complete the mascot development sometime next year.
“It’s part of Spirit Squads, which is a part of our cheer program, so that’s kind of the standard spot for (the mascot) across the country,” Thompson said.
The Landshark movement began brewing during the 2008 football season, when former Rebel linebacker and U.S. Army veteran Tony Fein threw up the now-iconic hand symbol after big defensive plays. For that same year, Fein received the Pat Tillman Award from the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The Rebel defense that season led the team to a Cotton Bowl victory against then-No. 7 Texas Tech. Nowadays, both Ole Miss students and their beloved on-field counterparts use a hand to the head to celebrate Fein’s life and show school spirit.
Campus leaders cited Fein’s story and students’ passion for it as one of a slew of reasons Ole Miss was ready for the Landshark. Kevin referenced Fein and the 2008 season in his Sept. 18 letter announcing the student poll, and Vitter repeatedly and publicly echoed support for Fein’s Landshark symbol.
In his statement, Vitter said for years, he and Athletics Director Ross Bjork heard from campus groups that it was time to replace Rebel the Black Bear with a more fitting symbol.
“During this same time, the Landshark has been embraced by the Ole Miss family and has come to depict the spirit and strength of our athletic teams and student-athletes,” Vitter said.
Vitter had shared the administration’s decision to retire Rebel the Black Bear and adopt the Landshark with Associated Student Body executives before releasing the statement Friday.
“I communicated our decision to the ASB president and expressed our appreciation for all their work and effort in leading the university conversation,” Vitter said. “Although this change was an institutional decision, it was important to communicate with ASB leadership, since they had initially pursued the change.”
The announcement came after the ASB revealed its agenda for Tuesday’s formal Senate meeting, which included a referendum to support the student body’s decision in the mascot poll.
Panhellenic Sen. Julia Grant authored the resolution, titled “A Resolution of the Associated Student Body Senate to change the official on-field mascot of the Ole Miss Rebels to the Landshark.” Grant said she will still bring the resolution to the floor Tuesday despite the administration’s official announcement. She said although ASB executives were already keen on changing the mascot, it was her duty as an ASB senator to represent students’ voices.
“Of course, it was disappointing to see Chancellor Vitter circumvent a student-elected organization by issuing the Landshark decision before we had the opportunity to vote on it,” Grant said. “However, although the process could have been improved to better consider student input, the chancellor’s decision was a victory for the university.”
Savannah Day, ASB Senate public relations chair, said the resolution has been in the works since the student poll was complete, and Tuesday’s vote will continue as scheduled.
She said the ASB Senate’s goal was initially to have the mascot change referendum come through the legislation for approval before reaching the administration. However, since September’s mascot referendum was sponsored and funded by the ASB executive branch as opposed to the Senate body, Day said it was hard to re-route the process.
ASB President Dion Kevin III said the university takes student opinion seriously and administrators matched the initial ASB poll with input from other groups. He said the Senate vote on Tuesday will affirm student opinion on the mascot change.
“No official document from ASB was presented to the university,” Kevin said. “Official ASB input on a mascot change is expected to come from our Senate on Tuesday, Oct. 10.”
Senior exercise science major Madison McMinn said she thought the university announced the official mascot change relatively quickly following the ASB-led vote.
“I was surprised. To my knowledge, it was a student-led initiative, so I didn’t think the university would actually take action based off of a student vote,” McMinn said.
McMinn said she thought the university handled the mascot decision well, though.
“It’s a step in the right direction, one away from Colonel Reb and the past that surrounds that. This is something that is unique to our university, with a good story behind it that will hopefully encourage unity,” McMinn.
Lana Ferguson and Rachel Ishee contributed reporting to this story.