The more things change, the more you notice those that stay the same.
Almost 21 years after integration came to the University of Mississippi, the school is still known by a name derived from plantation life, when slaves knew the owner's wife as "Ole Miss."
The teams' nickname is Rebels.
The athletes dress in the colors of the Old South.
The theme song is "Dixie."
The mascot is Col. Reb, a caricature of a white Southern planter.
The symbols have obvious racial overtones to many of the athletes Mississippi now seeks to recruit, but none carries the weight here that the school flag does. It was the battle flag of the Confederacy and is the marching flag of the Ku Klux Klan.
"The flag is very controversial," says Chancellor Porter Fortune, who confirms the university is considering dropping it in favor of a slightly altered version, perhaps with the school's initials or with Col. Reb in the middle.
The flag and other symbols are representative of an institution that, in a very real sense, no longer exists. But for a university, which must compete to attract faculty and students, an image is a terrible thing to waste.
And for Ole Miss, the image of 1962--when federal troops and a student named James Meredith ushered in the age of integration--won't go away.
"The very difficult problem of 1962 became a symbol of negativism and resistance," Fortune says. "The university bore the brunt for not only the South, but really for the country."
Meredith opened the door. Eight years later, Coolidge Ball became the first black athlete to walk through.
Now, Ole Miss is trying to recruit more outstanding black athletes. Its football team, a Southeastern Conference power in the 1960s, has not won more than six games in any season since '71. The chief recruiter for the last five years says the major problem is attracting highly recruited black athletes.
There are 715 black students among the 9,600 here, including 51 on football scholarships and 8 on basketball scholarships; the proportions are not dissimilar to those of other major universities. Ball, the original, owns a sign and screen lettering company here that makes "magnetic Rebels."
The first black football players, James Reed and Ben Williams, came in 1972, two years after Ball was recruited for the basketball team. By then, a number of others had apparently decided they didn't want Ole Miss. Football has suffered; the basketball program has had success (at the top of the SEC this season, the NIT last season, the NCAA tournament the year before) but not the widespread recognition of SEC rivals Alabama, Kentucky and Louisiana State.
"The competition will use anything they can against you to enhance their position with the athlete," says Warner Alford, Mississippi athletic director. "They try to make us . . . because of the symbols . . . make us look in an image that we are not."
Tommy Limbaugh, for the past five years the chief recruiter for former football coach Steve Sloan at Ole Miss, doesn't doubt that. "No question the symbols were our No. 1 problem," says Limbaugh, now at Duke with Sloan, who resigned at Mississippi after the 1982 season.
"We had circumstances where the Ku Klux Klan was marching in Oxford and pictures were being taken and circulated. Then the blacks would come and see the flag being waved in the stands and would get real excited."
That perceived Klan tie is a concern here, says one highly placed administrator who asked to remain anonymous. "That is where the problem is. You don't want to be associated with something like that," he says.
Neither do recruits, who sometimes can't be persuaded to visit the campus, Limbaugh says. For example, Marcus Dupree, the black running back who gained 905 yards rushing for Oklahoma as a freshman this past season, is from Philadelphia, Miss., but made it known he wasn't interested in Ole Miss.
"What have you heard?" Dupree asks. When told that Limbaugh said his mother didn't want him to attend Ole Miss, there is a short silence on the phone. Then, "yeah."
"A lot of people in my hometown don't like Ole Miss," says Dupree. "A lot of people like Southern (Mississippi). I'd say it's No. 1. And they like (Mississippi) State, too."
Ole Miss "wasn't the type of school I was looking for," says Dupree. "It just wasn't the environment that I was interested in."
Limbaugh says, "If we had Marcus Dupree in our backfield last year, I think I could have coached him."
Even the president of the university says, "I surely wish we could have gotten him."
Long before Dupree made his decision, the football program had another recruiting problem. In 1979, Limbaugh says a rival institution sent "every prospective student-athlete who was black five, six, sometimes seven letters, with various materials indicating racial prejudice at Ole Miss and why they should not go there."
He declined to name the institution. However vicious and out of context the materials, they are vivid reminders of a continuing struggle.
Romeo Crennel, a former member of Sloan's staff, told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger he had to contend with Ole Miss' image and symbols repeatedly: "When I recruited a black player, I told him that they're going to wave the Rebel flag and they're going to play 'Dixie.' " Crennel himself is black and says other blacks often have a "misconception" of Ole Miss, adding, "They still think Mississippi is like it was in the old days."
At one point, on the way home from a recruiting trip, Limbaugh said he and Sloan talked about doing something to make the symbols more palatable. Their first thought was to redesign the helmets, to remove Col. Reb and perhaps just have the letters "UM."
"Then the rumor mill started," says Limbaugh, who can laugh about it from a safe distance. "Now this was the week that the Russians invaded Afghanistan, the hostages were being held and the headlines on the front page in Jackson was that Sloan wants Col. Reb off the headgear."
"They had a picture of the helmet on the front page," says Alford.
Out of proportion, maybe. But they take their traditions seriously here. So Alford was careful not to allow a new, easily exploitable, one to be introduced.
As a result of a project of the senior class of '79, a white horse named Traveler (after Robert E. Lee's horse) was donated. The plan, says Jimmy Jones, director of student activities--who thinks the seniors acted without thinking out the situation--was for the horse to be a regular at football games. "I can't take credit for much, but I can take credit for not having that horse," says Alford. "It was the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."
The horse, says Jones, has since been sold.
The reaction has been more mixed on the old symbols. Of the name Ole Miss, Alford says, "It's great to have two names so associated with the school." Col. Reb is considered laughable, a Deep South version of the San Diego Chicken; in fact, Williams, now with the NFL Buffalo Bills, was voted the honorary title of Col. Reb during his days here. As for the song "Dixie," the band does a varied rendition. In addition, "We have a great fight song, 'Forward Rebels.' Man, it's great," says Alford. "It never gets identified (with the university) because of the other."
Although undoubtedly they do not enhance Ole Miss' desired image as a progressive institution, the symbols are part of the school, as much as the Lyceum or the houses on Fraternity Row. And, Alford and Limbaugh both say, once recruits visit the campus, "The athletes do the selling."
"Time has changed, and to be honest, it's something that's been part of Ole Miss since it's been an institution," says Ball, who has a hand-painted Col. Reb on his shop door, of the symbols. "I think if we start winning it will eliminate a lot of problems. "Take Georgia and Alabama; they've had as much racial problem or more as Mississippi . . . Winning resolves a lot of problems."
"Alabama's image as a state was no different than Mississippi, but they did win," says Alford, adding, "and Alabama had George Wallace, although he's done a 180-degree turn."
Alabama also had Bear Bryant, whose change of heart regarding segregation was as public as Wallace's and infinitely more meaningful in recruiting.
"When a kid is in high school, he knows what the symbols are," says Ball. "I don't see a problem in the university. It's just outside."
When Ball was at Ole Miss, he says he had no problems even though things were different. There were still students who had graduated from all-white public high schools, for one thing.
"I think Ole Miss has changed a lot. When I was a student, I had some kids--and I know they were sincere--tell me, 'Coolidge, you're the first black person I've ever talked to.'
"I feel I helped the other black athletes who came after me."
As the university has changed, so, too, has the town of Oxford. "It has changed with us," says Fortune. "But it's very hard in a small town to change that quickly."
Alford, cocaptain of the Ole Miss football team in 1960, says Oxford has "the same warm feeling that existed when I was a student." But how warm could the feeling have been for the first blacks, considering what Fortune calls "the Meredith incident?" Alford stops, shakes his head and answers slowly. "I have the feeling that . . . I can't answer that."
And for the University of Mississippi, it seems always to come back to that, to those early days of integration.
"In many cases, these kids weren't even alive then," says Alford.
But the parents were, and such memories die hard.
"The impression in '62 was as a place where a riot was going on," says Fortune. "That's hard to change.
"We're trying hard, we really are, but you don't step out of a situation like '62 and into the millenium. You have a lot of adverse emotion to overcome, as well as the image."
Sometimes, says Fortune, it seems public perceptions have finally caught up with the reality of Ole Miss and he will feel proud reading a positive out-of-state newspaper article. Then, "at the bottom of the story is a paragraph saying, 'This is where in 1962 . . . '
"And you say, 'My lord, when will it stop?' "