Mascot vote resurfaces on an evolving Ole Miss campus

Posted on Sep 25 2017 - 8:00am by Slade Rand

Voters will face more than just the annual personality elections on Tuesday, with a vote to support adopting a new mascot in the Landshark or stand with Rebel the Black Bear.

Years ago, Rebel the Black Bear won a student election to become the new face of Ole Miss and its athletics. In 2010, he polled at 62 percent. The Landshark finished not far behind, polling at 56 percent. While the issue may have been temporarily put to bed back then, some campus leaders agree that the school the mascot is supposed to represent has evolved since then.

“I think you have a different result if you did that same vote this year,” Michael Thompson said. “I think a lot has changed in seven years, but he (Rebel the Black Bear) won the vote fair and square seven years ago.”

Thompson took the position of senior associate athletics director for communications and marketing 10 days before the student referendum decided on a new mascot in 2010. He quickly became a very busy man.

Since its introduction, Rebel the Black Bear has picked up a wide range of supporters and opponents.

“Rebel the Black Bear has been the unfortunate placeholder for a much needed school mascot,” ASB President Dion Kevin III, who announced the vote, said. “It is uninspiring and does nothing to represent school spirit, and I’m certain that students feel it’s time to replace it.”

Sparky Reardon was serving as dean of students in 2010 and helped advise the committee along with university attorney Lee Tyner. He said that at the time, the committee made the right choice.

“The student committee that selected the bear worked extremely hard to be thorough, but in retrospect they were more cerebral than emotional and probably ‘overthought’ the process.”

Thompson said once the students made their choice in 2010, he led the charge in launching the new mascot, from licensing strategies to costume design. As the debate rears its head once again this year, Thompson said he sees some similarities.

“It’s not quite deja vu, but it definitely brings up memories,” he said. “Let’s put it that way.”

The fate of the school’s plush foam leader has been up in the air since Ole Miss Athletics formally removed Colonel Rebel from the sidelines in 2003. After nearly seven years without a cartoon face to rally behind, a student committee decided to adopt the Black Bear as the university’s official mascot in 2010.

“… That is when there was a referendum much different than the one now that we’re seeing,” committee co-chair and 2013 graduate Margaret Ann Morgan said. “Something along the lines of would you support the process to begin searching for an on field mascot.”

ASB and the university opted to form a student committee to handle the process after the initial poll, which is when Morgan became involved. She said the committee created a rubric of what a mascot for Ole Miss should represent and stuck to it. Criteria included the mascot’s timelessness, perception by children and how it would reflect the university.

“The students around the table, not everyone was on the same page with what they personally liked, but it was known that students liked the Landshark, but we said, again, we were going to go by that rubric and were going to go by the polling percentages that we received back, and so that’s how we came to the Black Bear,” she said.

This year’s referendum on adopting the Landshark as school mascot comes a year after Ole Miss Athletics announced its own Landshark licensing program. Last September, Athletics announced a partnership with ROTC to offer vendor licenses to sell Landshark-branded products. A portion of the proceeds from those Landshark products helps fund Ole Miss ROTC scholarships in memory of former Rebel linebacker and U.S. Army veteran Tony Fein.

In a press release announcing the partnership, Ole Miss Athletics explained the Landshark’s origins.

“Roots of the Landshark and ‘Fins Up’ cry at Ole Miss date back to 2008. As part of the football defensive unit’s identity, players celebrate big plays by putting a hand to their forehead in the shape of a shark fin,” the press release states. “The term Landshark originated that season from senior linebacker Tony Fein, an Army veteran who served a one-year tour in the Iraq War before arriving in Oxford.”

Thompson said the program honors Fein’s life and embodies the Rebel defense’s signature attack.

“It was probably three-and-a-half years ago that we, Ross and I, were talking to Tony Fein’s mom and really trying to find a way to honor him and at the same time put out a licensing program that the Ole Miss fan base can get behind,” Thompson said.

He said that in the months since the program has been open to license applications, vendors have excitedly applied to sell Landshark gear. Thompson said the Landshark has grown popular among not only Ole Miss fans but the athletic teams themselves. From shark projections in the stadium to Landshark images on the video screens, the symbol has made its way into Ole Miss game day culture.

“It’s caught on, and we’ve tried to leverage some of that,” Thompson said. “If you go to a football game, you’re going to see a lot of Landshark.”

Student leaders picked up on the Landshark’s expanding influence on Ole Miss’s campus as far as three years ago, when the push for a Landshark mascot began. Spring 2016 graduate Jack Pickering said he met with Athletics representatives in 2014 to discuss the growing Landshark brand on campus.

“In 2014, during my time as a student, I, along with other student leaders, met with the administration in the goal of implementing an in-stadium shark tank to give Ole Miss a highly unique stadium experience and to enhance the game atmosphere,” Pickering said.

This semester, Pickering called ASB President Kevin to further discuss a possible change in mascot. Pickering said he supports the Landshark because it will give the Ole Miss family something to be excited for during the pending NCAA investigation.

“On Aug. 30 … I encouraged Dion to lead a student-driven grassroots movement that unites the student body and give every student a voice to help implement a positive change,” he said.

Kevin said an official mascot change has the ability to make the ROTC program at Ole Miss one of the best in the Southeast. Thompson expressed a similar hope that if the school does adopt the Landshark, its branding will join the already functioning ROTC partnership program. He said ASB executives met with him earlier this year to discuss the Landshark program’s future and where it stands now.

“We had a great talk with Dion and told him where we stood with the licensing program and again answered some technical questions,” Thompson said.

Should the Landshark win Tuesday’s election Thompson said he imagines Athletics would look at an additional logo, adding to the mark and revisiting the branding program. Kevin said he is unsure what a new logo would look like, but it will likely keep some of the same logo designs currently used in Landshark branding.

“It has a story behind it. It inspires excitement, and it unifies our fan base,” Kevin said. “Additionally, it is already marketed in our merchandising and advertising.”

Morgan said that when she helped steer the ship through the 2010 mascot selection process, she could not count how many mascot design recommendations the committee received. At the end of the day, she said she supported the mascot that would best serve Ole Miss’ future.

“Any time that you have a place that is welcoming to everyone, it makes it better,” Morgan said. “And when you have leaders who support that, it is stronger.”