On autumn weekends, a Southern ritual plays out under the arching magnolias and oaks on the University of Mississippi campus: Alumni congregate by the thousands in "The Grove" before home football games, here to enjoy the deviled eggs and good cheer as the university band, "the Pride of the South," blares a rousing version of "Dixie."
And they come to cheer Colonel Rebel.
The life-size mascot -- a white-whiskered, hatted gentleman who looks much like Col. Sanders of fried-chicken fame -- works the crowd, shaking hands and posing for photos. But this season, the colonel has become a matter for passionate discussion among Ole Miss students and alumni, and for debate throughout Mississippi.
"The whole issue is that the colonel portrays a plantation owner," said Andy Prefontaine, whose son is a 1999 graduate. The Indiana businessman believes that as a reminder of the university's troubled past -- it was, and some say still is, a bastion for Mississippi's white establishment -- Colonel Rebel can only hamper efforts to recruit black athletes.
"Look at Walter Payton," said Prefontaine, citing as his example one of the greatest running backs in football history. "He's from Mississippi, and he played at Jackson State."
This year, the university administration decided to put the colonel on a short leash and seek a replacement. The Jackson Clarion-Ledger, one of the state's most influential newspapers, jocularly likened the wisdom of the move to striking a match aboard the Hindenburg.
There was a full-blown revolt among students and alumni, who include some of the most powerful people in Mississippi -- outgoing Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and Republican Gov.-elect Haley Barbour among them. Bumper stickers appeared reading, "Colonel Reb is my mascot." T-shirts declared, "The Colonel forever."
At this fall's homecoming, Chad Herod, a pharmaceutical salesman (Class of '01), and Lisa Stout, 36, whose family owns a carpet store in town, lunched on fried chicken under a gauzy canopy where a sign proclaimed: "The Colonel will always be welcome here."
"It's been our mascot ever since the '50s," Stout said. "The kids love him. Leave him alone."
"If you polled the alumni," Herod added, "you'd find 94%-95% in favor of keeping him."
That is not in the administration's game plan.
In June, Ole Miss Athletic Director Pete Boone announced the colonel would no longer appear on the football field to cheer on the Rebels. In his place, the university offered a pair of potential replacements: Rebel Bruiser, a younger, bigger-biceped version of the colonel, and Rowdy Rebel, who seemed to some wags to look like Mr. Clean in a football jersey.
An online poll was opened so students, members of the alumni association, university faculty and staff, season ticket holders and members of the Loyalty Foundation, which supports university athletics, could choose the new mascot. But only a fraction of the approximately 40,000 people qualified to cast ballots did so. Rebel Bruiser received 2,080 votes, Rowdy Rebel 344.
Acknowledging that grass-roots support for change was lacking, university Chancellor Robert C. Khayat called off the election. "It is clear from the responses received and from general public discussion that there is no community support for either of the proposed mascots," he said in a statement. "Therefore, the matter is closed."
Closed, or just in abeyance. For at perhaps no institution of higher learning is the matter of symbols more freighted with controversy. Even Ole Miss, the school's affectionate nickname, mirrors the checkered past of this cotton-growing state of the Old South. It was the term of address used by slaves to refer to the plantation mistress.
When James Meredith, under the protection of federal troops, enrolled in 1962 as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, there were violent clashes that left two people dead, 48 soldiers injured and 30 U.S. marshals with gunshot wounds.
Today, 13% of the student body is African American, in a state where the black percentage of the population is nearly three times that. Weekend crowds in The Grove still are overwhelmingly white.
"When I first came here, it was culture shock," said Florence Fraser, 28, a Latino from New York who arrived when her husband entered the university's law school. "Here people rally around the Dixie flag. The way we were taught, the Confederate flag stood for people who wanted to separate from the United States of America."
Khayat, an alumnus who has been chancellor since 1995, has said his aim is to transform Ole Miss into one of America's leading public universities while still respecting tradition. In 1996, the faculty senate, head football coach, alumni association board and student government asked fans to stop waving the Confederate flag at home games. Last year, a series of lectures, concerts and symposiums commemorated the 40th anniversary of the university's integration.
In 2001, Phi Beta Kappa, the honorary academic society, opened a chapter here. University enrollment, at 13,000, is at an all-time high, as is the number of black students. A five-year fund-raising drive to improve academics netted $525 million in contributions. An honors college and international studies institute have opened.
"Our message has been, this place has undergone enormous change. And the symbols need to change as well," said Jeffrey Alford, assistant vice chancellor for university relations.
But for some in the extended university community, tampering with a beloved mascot is taking political correctness too far.
"We have a lot of traditions down South, that's why we have trouble getting rid of Colonel Reb, who for me represents being Southern in general," said Ray Ferguson, 49, of Memphis. Ferguson's son Brian, a student, has been prominent in marshaling student and alumni support for bringing the cane-swinging gent back to the sidelines at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
But Alford -- who said that the angry e-mails and phone calls he has gotten over the mascot issue have dropped off dramatically of late -- reports that the colonel has probably attended his last football game.
"At this point, the decision stands: He has been retired," Alford said.
And while the Rebels lost a 17-14 heartbreaker Saturday to traditional rival Louisiana State, they are 8-3 and ranked No. 18 nationally heading into a cross-state matchup against Mississippi State tonight. A winning record may have helped soothe tempers and hurt feelings.
"Now that Colonel Rebel is gone, we're enjoying our greatest success in football in 40 years," Alford said.