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Ole Miss rolls out new physical mascot

A children’s hospital is probably as safe a place as any for the public debut of something as controversial as the Rebel Black Bear, Ole Miss’ new on-field mascot.

Eight-year-old Kayleigh DePoyster of Jackson gets a bear hug from The University of Mississippi's mascot during his visit April 5th.

Eight-year-old Kayleigh DePoyster of Jackson gets a bear hug from The University of Mississippi

So that’s exactly where Rebel showed up April 5 for his introduction. Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson hosted the event, which was “great in every way,” according to Michael Thompson Jr., senior associate athletic director for communications and marketing at Ole Miss. Thompson is the school’s point man for Rebel’s rollout.

The voting and selection process, though, were not so great. Hand-wringing, indignation and outright anger from supporters of Colonel Rebel, the school’s former on-field mascot that was banished in 2003, were as much a part of the debate as the options for a new mascot.

With that in the rearview mirror, how do you go about introducing and branding something that was the cause of the furor?

“You have to just recognize that it’s there,” Thompson said of the derision the Rebel Black Bear endured and will be subject to once the mascot shows up at an athletic event. “You have to recognize that you’re not going to win everybody over. There will be some people that will never, ever want to be a part of it. That’s OK. For me, accepting that is the first step to being successful with this.”

Thompson said the next step in Rebel’s introduction will be an appearance at an athletic event on campus “within the next several days. We’ve got a very set plan that takes into account a lot of research and ideas from several different areas. This is such a unique situation, we couldn’t have done it without some kind of plan. Connecting with children (like the Batson visit) and impacting the community positively are two big parts of the plan.

“It has been a pretty calculated process,” Thompson continued. “It starts with kids and it involves a lot of different communities. A lot of people do not realize how busy mascots are. When they are doing events here on campus, that’s just one little piece of what good mascots are doing. The good ones are out visiting different places literally all the time. That’s how you get the brand out. We’ve got a plan that involves appearances in certain markets and certain places within those markets.”

Rebel, the University of Mississippi's mascot, plays with Darren while sitting on his dad, Dewayne John, of Hattiesburg, lap during the mascots visit to the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children April 5th.

Rebel, the University of Mississippi's mascot, plays with Darren while sitting on his dad, Dewayne John, of Hattiesburg, lap during the mascots visit to the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children April 5th.

The process of selecting a new mascot started about 18 months ago, when a handful of student of organizations approached Ole Miss chancellor Dr. Dan Jones and told him they wanted an on-field mascot. Then, the school had gone without one for roughly six years. An online and text-message based voting process was eventually set up, in which students, alumni, Loyalty Foundation members and other stakeholders were able to select from a half-dozen options.

Jackson-based  advertising and public relations firm The Ramey Agency was involved in the administration of the process that led to Rebel Black Bear’s selection as the physical mascot. Its role had diminished somewhat now, Thompson said, although Ramey staffers were present during the Batson visit.

Chris Ray, partner and CEO of Ramey, declined comment via email, writing it was the firm’s practice of “allowing our clients to do the speaking.”

And most of what Thompson, a 2001 Ole Miss graduate, is saying these days is that a mascot does not a university – or even a football team – make.

“Here’s the thing: We’re not telling people to like Rebel. We’re not forcing them.  We’re laying out our objectives, and if people have a problem with those objectives, then I’m sorry. Connecting with kids and trying to create little Ole Miss Rebels is a critical component. That’s why we have the Ole Miss script logo and everything else. The mascot is just one iota of what the brand is. I’ve been in marketing for a long time. You cannot please everybody is. You just have to do your best with your target audience.”

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