This past Saturday, Ole Miss pulled back the curtain on its new on-field mascot: the landshark. Twitter promptly lost its mind over the muscled-up shark with its toothy grin and swept-back dorsal fin. Angry Rebel fans bashed the costume design. Media members chortled. Opposing fans gleefully posted memes. More than anything, people wondered why the hell a school in north Mississippi picked a shark as its mascot.
Roughly a dozen species are found in the warm waters off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but the state has no significant historical association with sharks. On the surface, about the closest tie-in you can find is Pascagoula native Jimmy Buffet’s Landshark Lager.
As any Ole Miss fan can tell you, though, the cultural significance of the landshark goes deeper than that. Its historical association with Rebel sports spans a decade and is a story that includes Marshall Henderson, an upset win over Tim Tebow and the hiring of Hugh Freeze.
But first we need to talk about an Iraq War vet and a life cut too short.
You need to know who Tony Fein is
On a muggy Oxford afternoon in the summer of 2008, Tony Fein was frustrated. A 26-year-old Army vet entering his senior year as a linebacker at Ole Miss, he felt he should be further up the depth chart. After making a pair of sacks against quarterback Jevan Snead, Fein, according to accounts from coaches and teammates given to Magnolia State Live, vented his frustration with the gesture that would become synonymous with Rebel athletics: hand erect and pressed against the forehead, mimicking the dorsal fin of a shark ominously breaking water.
“He was in practice one day, and he didn’t feel like he was getting his dues,” his brother, Richard, told Magnolia State Live. “He thought he was the best linebacker on the team, and I agree. We both felt that he should have been getting more playing time and starting more, so in practice, they were doing their live drills and he was blowing up the seam. He was killing it in practice, and said something to the effect of ‘I’m here.’ He was smelling blood in the water, and he was the landshark.”
Fein put his football dreams on hold when he joined the Army out of high school, going on to serve on the front lines of the Iraq War as a Delta Reconnaissance Scout. His unit was nicknamed “the landsharks.” He brought that toughness and tenacity to Oxford when he signed with Ole Miss as a top JUCO prospect. Anchored by a defense that ranked top-20 in both points and yards allowed per game, the Rebels went from three wins in 2007 to a nine-win Cotton Bowl champ in 2008 under first-year head coach Houston Nutt. The defense, studded with future NFLers like Peria Jerry, Jerrell Powe and Jamarca Sanford, adopted Fein’s landshark gesture as an embodiment of their aggressive, swarming style of play.
The fourth-and-one stop against Tim Tebow to upset eventual national champion Florida that season is etched into the mind of Ole Miss fans, but not as many remember the play preceding it. On third and 10, with the Rebels clinging to a 31-30 lead in the final minute, Fein shoved off an offensive lineman and sprinted toward the sideline, dragging down Gators wide receiver Brandon James one yard shy of the marker. He celebrated with the landshark.
Almost a year to the day after Fein’s game-saving tackle in the Swamp, he collapsed and died at a friend’s house near his hometown of Port Orchard, Washington. The coroner’s office would later rule his death an accidental drug overdose, citing a mix of morphine and anxiety medicine.
He was 27 years old.
The fins up resurgence
The excitement of Nutt’s first two years in Oxford waned quickly. The Rebels won just six combined games in 2010 and 2011 and Nutt was canned. The once-mighty defense devolved into one of the SEC’s worst and, without many plays to celebrate, the landshark salute faded from the field.
The hiring of Hugh Freeze turned things around. The Rebels won eight games in 2012 and increased their win total every season for the next three years. Freeze’s uptempo spread offense was the star of the show, but the defense was finding some its old swagger. Defenders like Cody Prewitt, C.J. Johnson and Issac Gross were making plays all over the field—and throwing up the fin to celebrate.
Ole Miss football was fun again and the landshark became the symbol of its resurgence.
Landshark merchandise started popping up. Fans wore foam fin hats. The stadium speakers blared the taut cords of the Jaws theme on third downs. The gesture spread to other Rebel sports: pitchers threw it up after big strikeouts, volleyball players flashed it after spikes. Hell, even the golf team was doing it.
To that point, though, the landshark remained tucked within the Ole Miss community, unrecognized by the average college sports fan. Then came Marshall Henderson.
Hendo and the rooster shark
For a brief moment in March of 2013, Ole Miss was at the center of the college basketball world. The Rebels had stunned Florida to win the SEC championship and knocked off heavyweight Wisconsin as a twelve-seed to advance to the NCAA Tournament’s second round. The whole country, Lebron James included, was talking about Marshall Henderson.
Man that dude Henderson from Ol Miss got the greenest light in basketball history!! Hahaha.— LeBron James (@KingJames) March 22, 2013
Henderson had transferred to Ole Miss with an arrest record and a brash, swaggering attitude that immediately made him the most polarizing player in SEC basketball. His game was as brazen as his personality: that year, he broke the conference’s single-season record for three-point attempts by 87 shots.
He needed a signature celebration to go along with all those treys. He found it in the landshark.
Er, at least his version of the landshark.
The fins up salute the country saw during the SEC hoops championship was what landshark purists called bastardized and what most Rebel fans referred to as the “rooster shark”: thumb extending from the forehead, fingers spread and, if Marshall was really feeling it, wiggling.
The finer points of form aside, however, Henderson had taken the landshark mainstream.
The landshark comes to life
Last year, Ole Miss announced it was once again changing its on-field mascot. Tumult had been boiling around the mascot since 2003, when the university decided to pull Colonel Reb from the sidelines amid a broader effort to distance itself from Confederate imagery. The sidelines stood empty for nearly a decade before the school made its first attempt at formally replacing the Colonel.
In 2013, the introduction of Rebel the Black Bear was met with frenzied opposition from the Colonel Reb loyalists. The clamor mellowed over time, but the new mascot never really took hold, largely because the bear had no meaningful association with the state or university. In September of 2017, over 81 percent of the Ole Miss student body voted to replace it with the landshark.
“We believe that affection for the Landshark serves as a symbolic rallying point, something lovingly embraced among students from a variety of backgrounds, races, religions, creeds and political affiliations,” the Associated Student Body said in a statement. “To that end, it is clear that the student body believes the Landshark deserves to represent our school’s spirit on the field, in the Grove and in our hearts.”
School administrators followed the students’ lead, announcing that the landshark would be formally adopted heading into the 2018 football season. The unveiling came this past weekend amid a light show that rivaled Lebron’s Big Three welcome party in Miami.
The Ole Miss reveal event for Tony the Landshark was truly incredible pic.twitter.com/8sha2RsOOf— RedditCFB (@RedditCFB) August 12, 2018
The reaction to the new mascot among Ole Miss fans has been mixed, with a significant number taking to social media to bash it. The costume is, if we’re being honest, a bit preposterous, even by mascot standards. But the shark has a distinct advantage over its predecessor. Whereas the bear’s negligible ties to the fan base allowed it to slide right off, the landshark has the cultural significance to eventually find a foothold. The fins up sign has been a part of the Ole Miss game day experience for years. It’s been adopted across every sport and by fans of all ages. Jarring as the actual costume may be, the concept itself is grounded in historical relevance.
At its core, the landshark is a tribute to the young man who first flashed it during a hot summer afternoon over a decade ago. Roughly 24 hours before the mascot’s WWE-style intro, before the lights and smoke and angry tweets, the school quietly released the landshark’s name.
They named him Tony.