Today marks the 40th anniversary since Star Wars debuted in theaters. Few could have foreseen the space opera — derived from an Akira Kurosawa film The Hidden Fortress, and filmed on a modest $11 million budget — evolving into a milestone for cinema and pop culture.
Four decades since the original film’s release, it made almost $800 million at the box office; spawned two sequels in the subsequent six years; three prequels from 1999 through 2005; a successful relaunch of the series this decade; dozens of cartoons and comic books; and countless memorabilia.
Avoiding the Star Wars phenomenon is virtually impossible. To wit, the Star Wars universe nearly consumed the college football world.
Our story starts a long time ago, in an SEC outpost far, far away…
Controversy surrounding the reverential display of Confederate imagery isn’t new, though the recent decommissioning of such monuments as reignited the debate. In 2003, shortly after the release of Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Ole Miss stopped the use of mascot “Colonel Reb” at Rebels sporting events.
College athletic departments moving away from certain negative imagery in their branding went on for decades before Colonel Reb’s retirement. Stanford went from Indians to Cardinal; Syracuse dropped the suffix “men” from the name Orange, and no longer used a Native as its mascot; the Miami Redskins and St. John’s Redmen became RedHawks and Red Storm.
Likewise, Ole Miss opted to move away from a mascot with, at best, divisive connotation. The Antebellum Southern dandy who once adorned Rebels apparel and strolled the sidelines of games may as well have been the template for Don Johnson’s character, “Big Daddy,” in the 2012 film Django Unchained.
Colonel Reb was retired, but Ole Miss went without a mascot for seven years. Mascots are as vital to the college sports scene as the marching band, cheerleaders, even the teams they root on. It’s all part of the pomp and pageantry that defines a football Saturday.
Heck, even Star Wars had its unofficial mascot in Chewbacca.
But in the Star Wars saga lies a cautionary tale when finding a mascot. Choose wisely, you have an iconic figure associated with great memories, like Chewbacca. Misfiring, as was the case with Jar Jar Binks, leaves the wrong kind of lasting impression.
The Ole Miss Black Bear certainly isn’t a whiff the caliber of Jar Jar Binks — nowhere near it. Introduced in 2010, the mascot comes with two backstories that celebrate uniquely Mississippi history.
The first is based on a short story by Ole Miss alum William Faulkner, one of the most well-regarded writers in American history. The second has an indirect link to college football, as it illustrates the 1902 hunting trip Pres. Theodore Roosevelt took to Mississippi. Roosevelt refused to shoot a trapped black bear, in a moment that spawned the creation of another iconic American symbol: the Teddy bear.
Tying this story to college football, Roosevelt would call for changes to the game just three years later. A dangerously violent game at the time — more so than today — Roosevelt’s public intervention led to innovations that essentially saved the sport.
Though a supporting character in the original Star Wars trilogy, Admiral Ackbar became a fan favorite over the years for his importance to a pivotal plot point in Return of the Jedi. “It’s a trap!” remains one of the most memorable lines in any installment of the series.
As Ole Miss athletic brass sought input for a new mascot — which included a Landshark in an homage to the 2008 Rebels defense — a grassroots groundswell began, urging the university to adopt Admiral Ackbar as its symbol.
It made sense; Ackbar played a central role in the Rebel Alliance within the Star Wars universe, giving new meaning to the “Rebels” nickname Ole Miss sports don. The mass appeal of Star Wars may also have grown the Ole Miss fanbase to audiences it would not have otherwise reached.
Moreover, as touched up on in the below ESPN commercial, Admiral Ackbar would have been the only college sports mascot armed with lasers.
However, the above video touches on the key roadblock to Ole Miss adopting Ackbar: Lucasfilm Ltd. simply wasn’t having it. The inherent irony there is that just a few years later, the Star Wars property was sold to Disney, a company with some history in providing a college football its mascot.
This 1995 Register-Guard article chronicles the partnership between Disney and the University of Oregon. The two parties had a 70-year, handshake agreement on the use of Oregon’s Puddles, one of the most popular mascots in college sports.
Oxford joining the Star Wars universe was not meant to be. Still, that it felt like a real possibility approaching four decades after the film’s original release speaks to the movie’s cultural impact. Logan’s Run can’t claim that.