Dixie State College is taking its first step toward dropping its "Rebel" mascot with all the nickname's Old South stereotypes.

The St. George college said it is launching an online nomination process that will narrow and finally select a new mascot by April 3.

At its most dramatic, the contest will feature three dueling mascots dressed up and on display for college basketball games.

Officials say students, alumni, faculty and staff, fans and the public will make the decisions each step of the way.

College officials didn't explain in a statement last month why they are searching for a new "positive" identity, but a college spokesman said it had nothing to do with a proposed union with the University of Utah.

The university has made changing the mascot an ironclad condition for Dixie's desire to affiliate with the state's premier public university.

And the Rebel mascot isn't the only thing that might have to go.

Randy Dryer, the U.'s chief trustee, has said Dixie State may have to become the "University of Utah at St. George" if merger talks are to succeed. In November, Dryer explained that the University of Utah was sensitive to its national reputation.

"Here in Utah, we understand there is a difference between Utah's Dixie and the Dixie of the Old South," he said. "To the rest of the world, it means the Confederacy and slavery."

Dixie spokesman Steve Johnson denies the search for a new mascot identity has anything to do with a merger.

"The U. affiliation is a completely separate issue," Johnson told The Associated Press. "The University of Utah doesn't dictate what we do down here."

The announcement set in motion a decision by the Dixie State College Board of Trustees last year to retire the "Rebel" nickname. DSC and U. officials this year visited multi-campus systems in other states. The purpose of the visits was to learn how other university systems mesh degree programs and admission, identity and accreditation policies.

Dixie leaders have yet to announce an effort to change the Dixie name, but only the Utah Legislature can change a school's name, Johnson said.

According to local legend, the "Dixie" name hailed from efforts by early Mormon pioneer settlers to grow cotton in the southern Utah region. Locals insist it has nothing to do with racism or slavery, but school trustee Chris Roybal has conceded most people outside Utah wouldn't understand the nuance.

A name change wouldn't be the first for Dixie State College — it was opened by the LDS church in 1911 as the St. George Stake Academy. Even then it was known informally as Dixie Academy, Johnson said.

The Dixie name was formalized in variations over the years: Dixie Normal College (1916), Dixie Junior College (1923), Dixie College (1970) and finally Dixie State College (2000).

Dixie State College has just under 6,000 students, Johnson said.