Jumping The Landshark

Was he a war hero and fallen gentleman, or a slaver and a racist? His record is mixed at best: genteel, but with a military title that pointed to something more sinister. Once his face was plastered everywhere and even now, you can find him peering around the corner. But his symbols wore thin and eventually even his supporters saw that he needed to go. I speak, of course, of Colonel Rebel.

He was replaced with Rebel the Black Bear in a coup supported by the administration in 2010, but the new guy never really had the support of the people. There has since been two attempts to get Colonel Rebel reinstated as the Ole Miss mascot at the State level through constitutional amendments. Both attempts have failed to gain the needed 100,000 signatures owing to the fact that the whole petition is so incredibly stupid.

Now Ole Miss student government is once again going to the polls to elect a mascot through free and fair elections, and hoping to replace the Black Bear with a grass roots favorite — a Landshark. Fitting, because in the raging, and very real fight over symbolism in the Republic, we have officially jumped the shark.

I was living in Oxford the summer before the Black Bear’s football debut in 2011, which gave me time to harass the locals and students about the exile of their beloved Colonel Rebel. I thought that this would be easy as Oxford is one of the few college towns where both the locals and the students congregate in the same place: a quaint town center called The Square. I drifted in and out of bars and the famous Square Books pestering locals about what they thought of old mascot and the new, and the University’s ongoing PR problem with the students, the alumni, the rest of the country and the 21st century. I expected, even hoped for, a lot of heated arguments one way or the other: perhaps a beer fueled riot of howling loyalists or outraged liberals. What I got was a consistent wave of shrugging shoulders coupled with “Hell…I don’t know… the problem was that… well… it was the way to was done…” As if everyone in town saw me coming and agreed on the one answer that would give me absolutely nothing to hold onto.

The theory at the time was that the University hired an outside PR firm to find the most innocuous thing to represent Mississippi without evoking a Confederate fetish and could be easily made into a bobble head. The answer was reference to William Faulkner’s great short story The Bear. Then, knowing that the students would reject Rebel the Black Bear the way teenagers reject anything parents and teachers tell them to do, the administration asked for student picks, and held a vote that was — so went the gossip — obviously rigged.

The student picks were protests as Absurdist Theater. There was Admiral Ackbar, the head of the Rebel alliance from the Star Wars movies. The creature means well and looks like a giant crawfish, but you don’t want to suck his head. Lucas Films Ltd. let it be known that if the Admiral won the vote, there would be a lot of legal bad noise from the guy who created the Death Star. There was also a high concept muppet called “Hoddy Toddy” that looked like a steroid-addled attack fraggle. And then there was the Landshark.

The randomness of the whole thing was the point. As one grinning undergrad told me back in 2011, “We have, or had, a mascot that meant something, was tied to the school. If you got to take it away, fine. But it doesn’t matter what you replace it with: A bear, hound dog, a landshark. At this point it’s all random.” Colonel Rebel, for obvious reasons, was banned from the election.

According to the University, Rebel the Black Bear won with 62% of the vote. As election rigging goes, that wasn’t some Hugo Chavez 96% landslide, but more like a Vladimir Putin outcome: Close enough to appear plausible if you don’t think too hard about it, but it keeps you out of a run-off.

Regardless if the We know what’s best for you so hold still and this won’t hurt a bit theory is true or not, the students are again getting restless. Ole Miss Student Government President Dion Kevin, III announced that there would be a student vote on replacing the Black Bear with the Landshark, which has steadily gotten less random since the last election seven years ago.

Way back in 2008, then linebaker Tony Fein started flashing what he called a “fins up” sign to celebrate Ole Miss’s upset of a heavily favored Florida. Fein died a year later, but the “fins up” business continued. So, the random mascot named after Jimmy Buffet’s Corona knock-off, or the old SNL monster that ate Lorraine Newman’s face grew into something more. “The Landshark as we know it today has its origins in football,“ said Kevin, “but it has come to symbolize Ole Miss’s fighting spirit and athletic prowess.”

To be clear, this ongoing fight is for a mascot, a doll, a semi-adult wubby. The fight has endured all dignity you’d expect from a slap fight over a plush toy. A mascot, by its sheer, silly uselessness, is just a symbol. I remember being in high school and trying to get some honest shut-eye as the teacher kept going on about Faulkner’s use of symbolism. Eula Varner, the teacher said after throwing an eraser at my head, represented a Hellenistic fertility goddess, and I thought, “Yeah, sure, the chubby girl who gets around equals springtime in Greece — if you say so.” And that, I figured, was the end of it.

Evidently not. People are really aggrieved. The Black Bear was never very popular because it was applied from on high, and no one like’s being told for whom to cheer. The University took the relatively high road of forcing anymore down anyone’s throat than they had to. The official shops don’t have many bears in them, but they don’t have the old Colonel either.

In the private sector, things are different. The old Colonel is like the gringo greenback in Havana: officially banned, but everywhere on the street. Off campus stores sell unofficial Colonel Rebel swag. One local had a replica mascot made and still rents the Colonel out to weddings and birthday parties. He is forbidden from coming into the stadium after a hastily passed (and tailor made) policy against wearing masks was enacted. Like the Cuban Peso, the official mascot is worthless on the street.

All this time the Landshark has been gaining support with students and, for that matter, the administration. Last year the school started officially licensing fins up swag. What Dion Kevin hopes for is to make a real and expensive change with an entirely symbolic and non-binding vote on replacing the Bear with the Landshark which, says Kevin, “has a legacy of unity and excitement” for the University.

And maybe it will. Before I left Oxford in 2011, the local news ran a story about a black bear that had run up a telephone pole in some couple’s backyard. The interview was quick and what you’d expect for a minor human interest story: the normal looking wife and a husband wearing an Ole Miss tee shirt. No one was hurt. They’d shot the bear.

Originally Appeared in Whiskey/Barrel



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