|Mississippi's mascot mess|
By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist
OXFORD, Miss. -- It would be so much simpler if only the University of Mississippi mascot was some goofy animal. Like the Georgia Bulldog or the Florida Gator.
It wouldn't even have to be an animal. A Buckeye would do just fine, too.
But no. The school mascot is a white-bearded old man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and leaning on a cane. His name is Colonel Reb and he looks like nothing less than the very caricature of an old, white plantation owner. He's offensive and the school wants to get rid of him. Saying the figure is outdated and that it wants a more dynamic image, the administration has already banished Colonel Reb from sporting events and is in the process of choosing a replacement.
And a lot of people are pretty upset about that.
Websites have sprouted up in support of the mascot. Some people are calling for a school boycott. A few days before my sports tour down the Mississippi brought me to campus, the student government held a vote. Of the 1,687 votes cast, 94 percent wanted to keep the mascot.
"They're messing with something that doesn't need to be messed with," a student told the school newspaper, the Daily Mississippian. "It's getting on our nerves. They're messing with history."
The problem, of course, is that history is rather ugly. Visiting the Lyceum, the school's elegant, 155-year-old administration building, I could still see marks where bullets struck during the riot when James Meredith integrated the school 41 years ago. As former Missisisippi star running back Deuce McAllister says, "When you think of the University of Mississippi, the first thing you think of is the past."
And for a school trying to march into the future, Colonel Reb isn't exactly the image you want to project, especially when you're recruiting black students. "I had friends ask me, 'Why are you going there?'" said pre-med student Kevin Hall, who is African-American.
Mississippi went through this once before, a couple years ago, when it banned the confederate flag at sporting events. So this latest controversy wasn't unexpected.
"Obviously, there are a lot of people who feel passionately about the school and the athletic department," said Jeff Alford, Mississippi's vice-chancellor for university relations. "There is a lot of history here. The Lyceum served as a hospital during the Civil War. It's not surprising that a lot of people are upset about this."
Alford said the school has received 300 new mascot suggestions, ranging from a lion to a James Dean character (think "Rebel Without a Cause"). The administration will narrow the selection to three candidates and select a new mascot next month. At that point, the Colonel Reb logo will begin to be phased out on University-licensed products.
(He will still be available for non-sporting events, however, just in case KFC is opening a new restaurant.)
"Personally, I'm in favor of getting rid of the mascot," Hall said. "I feel that we should change with the community. Every year, there is an increasing number of minorities; and you also find that there are other students who don't come here because of the Colonel Reb mascot. The term 'Ole Miss' itself is what the slaves used to call the slavemaster's wife.
"I feel we should definitely get rid of it. We need something that's more representative of the student body ... Other universities have gone through mascot changes, and it's sad that we're still trying to resist change."
Just wait until they try getting rid of "Dixie."
From all the fuss, you would think Colonel Reb has been patrolling the Mississippi sidelines since the battle of Vicksburg. He hasn't. While the Colonel Reb image predates the mascot, the current Colonel made his first appearance as a mascot on the field in the 1970s. That's right. The 1970s, not the 1870s.
"It was right when the San Diego Chicken was big and cartoon-like mascots were popular," Alford said.
Well, you would hate to desecrate a tradition inspired by a man in a Chicken costume.
A couple years ago, I projected the entire NCAA basketball tournament based on the mascots matchups. When I got to Colonel Reb, I wrote, "What, was the Grand Wizard already taken?" My email address wasn't included on my stories back then; and yet, I still received dozens of angry responses from outraged Mississippi supporters.
I exchanged a series of emails with one particularly passionate and thoughtful alumnus who invited me to visit Oxford and see the school's beauty in person. I finally visited last Friday and spent a lovely afternoon on and around campus, taking in the landscaped grounds, the stately old trees in the Grove and the female students who are so drop-dead gorgeous that it is said the University red-shirts Miss Americas.
It was a home football weekend, and RVs already were rolling onto campus for the pre-game tailgate parties when I arrived around 11. Mississippi hasn't been to a major bowl in a generation, but the fans still take their football -- and their football traditions -- so seriously that the posted speed limit is 18 miles per hour in recognition of Archie Manning's old number.
Hall praised the school's academic quality; and, in fact, the university recently was named one of the country's best college buys for its mix of low tuition and high academics.
Oxford also is known as a literary locus, providing a home over the years for everyone from Nobel heavyweight William Faulkner (who is honored with a statue near the town square) to former writer-in-residence Willie Morris to best-selling alumnus John Grisham. Square Books, a short drive off campus, is one of the nation's most respected independent booksellers.
When I walked into Square Books, one of the first volumes I saw was "Sons of Mississippi," Paul Hendrickson's extraordinary new book on the lives of seven Mississippi police officers who were photographed gloating over a billy club at the Meredith riots. Purchasing the book, I asked the cashier about the Colonel Reb controversy. He chuckled, assuring me that 70 percent of the people in town couldn't care less about Colonel Reb and would be happy to wave him good-bye.
Brian Ferguson, chairman of the Colonel Reb Foundation and a junior marketing student, disagreed, assuring me that, "It's just a handful of people who feel Colonel Reb needs to go. The majority want to keep him."
When I mentioned that the first three students I questioned on the subject all wanted to get rid of the mascot and that I therefore must have found them through some magical intervention, he said, indeed, that must have been the case.
"Students don't see this as a race issue," Ferguson said. "They see it as the administration telling us in a dictatorial way that this is the way it's going to be. We're just saying, 'What about us?'
"It has nothing to do with race or keeping the heritage of the Civil War."
Plain, old-fashioned college student resentment against an administration making a decision over their heads is a significant part of this. But when Ferguson talks about Colonel Reb being a tribute to an old black man named Blind Jim Ivy who sold peanuts around campus during the first half of the century (when blacks weren't allowed to attend classes), he begins to lose me.
Mississippi is by no means alone when it comes to mascot controversy. Cleveland's mascot is Chief Wahoo, who has a grotesquely red face with teeth so enormous and gleaming that they resemble a Donny Osmond experiment gone horribly awry. The NFL team in our nation's capital, for crying out loud, is named the Redskins, about as offensive as a name can be. (What, was Noble Savages already taken?)
Wanting to preserve Colonel Reb doesn't mean you're a bigot -- indeed, McAllister says the mascot never bothered him a bit. It's understandable to want to keep him simply because you associate him with tailgate parties in the Grove, fall afternoons at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and everything that makes you feel good about the University of Mississippi. Plus, as psychology student Jason Shepherd says, "It's human nature to resist change."
But absolutely none of that means he should stay. He can't. This is 2003; Meredith integrated the school 41 years ago. About 13 percent of the student body is black, as is men's basketball coach Rod Barnes.
Colonel Reb is offensive. He has to go.
If his supporters really appreciate the damage Colonel Reb brings to the school and state they love so dearly, they would welcome a new mascot, a mascot that all students can embrace, enjoy and look to with a sense of pride instead of embarrassment.
I'm thinking maybe a tree.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.