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St. George • Dixie State University students and sports teams will now be known as Trailblazers, represented by Brooks the Bison, the school revealed in a video Monday afternoon.
The new symbol is an "authentic and worthy" nod to southwestern Utah's hardscrabble history, President Richard "Biff" Williams told an auditorium of about 1,000 people in the M.K. Cox Performing Arts Center on campus. Williams hopes the new mascot will "unite us, heal past wounds and make us proud to support it," he said.
Trailblazers was selected from several new identity options, part of an effort to further distance the university from the deep South associations of its former Rebels name, replaced in 2009 with Red Storm and Big "D" the Bull.
Those did not catch on around campus or the wider community, noted Shi-Quan Nettingham, a junior mass communications major and a runner on the cross-country team.
The Trailblazers name "does give us more of an identity," the Las Vegas native said outside the auditorium. "The Red Storm was kind of confusing. I think this mascot is more fierce."
School spokesman Jordan Sharp drew whistles and applause as he presented the details of the new logo, including the exact shades of blue, red and gray that compose the headstrong "Brooks the Bison," named after the school's first student, Samuel Brooks.
Landing on a new mascot "has been inspiring," Sharp said. "It's been harder than crap, too."
The school adopted the name Dixie in 1916, inspired by the region's brief 19th century cotton-growing history, but has wrestled with that identity in the past decade. Events such as the shooting deaths of nine people at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., last year have led critics to take aim at the school's use of Dixie, widely known as a nickname for the slave-owning South.
The university of about 8,500 full-time students is "absolutely not" considering a change in name, Williams said in a news conference after the announcement.
But the shift to a new school ambassador reflects a larger change at the university. Dixie State is seeking to establish a physician's assistant program in conjunction with the University of Utah, increase its high-tech degree offerings and grow business offerings for young entrepreneurs.
After hiring recruiters and boosting its advertising, the school this year has received more than three times the applications it did last year, going from 4,000 to 15,000, Williams said.
Still, old loyalties remain strong.
"If you were a Rebel, you will always be a Rebel," Sharp told alumni in the audience who graduated prior to 2009. "No one wants to take that away, nor can we."
Dixie State has said there's nothing inherently wrong with the Rebels name, but that the Confederate flags and other traditions that honored the former moniker did link the school to the South. The school no longer uses Confederate flags and in 2015 returned a statue of Confederate soldier boys to its artist.
But 12 percent of respondents to a school survey earlier this year rejected the proposed symbols, writing in "Bring back the Rebels," though that wasn't an option on the survey.
"I freaking swear," another response read, "if we get another stupid name like 'red-storm' I will leave this school."
The college paid Salt Lake City-based Love Communications $50,000 to think up six candidates to replace Red Storm and the bull. Love also created the logos and marketed the new mascot. A 12-member "Identity Committee" of students and school and athletics administrators whittled the options down to three after reviewing the 7,400 survey responses.
The other, ultimately rejected, finalists were the Sun Warriors, in the form of the Greek god Apollo, a nod to the area's persistent sunshine; and the Raptor, based on the Utahraptor dinosaur discovered in the region, and imagined as a symbol of strength. Three potential mascots did not make the cut: Wranglers, Rockhounds and Marshals.
Nettingham, who is African-American and Italian-American, said the community does retain some of its identity associated with the deep South.
"I don't know if it's ever going to go away," he said, noting he still sees Confederate flags around town but has had only positive interactions in St. George. "I do think it's moving in the right direction."
Bison flags went up around campus after the announcement. Brooks the Bison's portrait will also be painted on streets surrounding the university, and a bronze statue of a life-size bison is set to go up on campus. That stoic beast was selected by student government officers and will cost $12,500 from their budget, subsidized by student fees.