Jimmy Collins Special Awards 2014While there are many different categories of awards presented by the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee, some years the committee finds that there are people deserving of recognition who do not necessarily fit into one specific category. For that reason, the Committee presents Special Awards to outstanding individuals and organizations.
This year’s Special Award winners are an extraordinary group demonstrating excellence across a unique and broad spectrum.
One Special Award is being presented to an individual who has led his department to exceptional levels, while another is going to an entire athletic department for its overall excellence in 2013-14. A third Special Award will be presented to a coach, not to recognize his on-court success, but rather his very unique contributions away from the athletic arena. The final Special Award goes to an individual who has kept New Orleans and Louisiana in the spotlight at the pinnacle of college football, while also ensuring that events and organizations such as the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame continue to thrive.
Rob Bernardi, the Director of Athletics at Nicholls State University, was honored by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) as one of four winners of the Under Armour AD of the Year Award for the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision. With 13 years as director of athletics at Nicholls, Bernardi is the second longest tenured athletics director in the school’s history. Since arriving in Thibodaux, he has reinvigorated Nicholls athletics by transforming the department into a modern, progressive program aimed at increasing funding, improving facilities and enhancing the student-athlete experience.
The University of Louisiana-Lafayette Athletic Department had unprecedented success this past year, winning five conference championships and advancing to the NCAA Tournament in four sports, along with a New Orleans Bowl victory. The Ragin’ Cajuns were the only athletic program in the country to achieve four elite goals: win a football bowl game, send a team to NCAA basketball tournament, host NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals in baseball and softball, and send a team to the College World Series.
One of the more unique Special Awards stories in recent years is that of Mark Slessinger. In his three years as the head basketball coach at the University of New Orleans, he has continued to rebuild the program, however, his largest impact on the community, and society, comes off the court. Slessinger and his wife Toni have dedicated themselves to being foster parents for young children in need. The goal of the foster system is to give a child a solid and safe environment while giving the birth parents the opportunity to work out any issues they may be going through. It is a noble cause, but also a heartbreaking one; if the system works as designed, the foster parents will return the baby for whom they have cared for many months.
In 2011, the Slessingers took in their first foster child, a six-and-a-half month old girl. Ten months later, the birth family was ready, and the Slessingers were able to return a child they had taken in as their own. Since the first child, the Slessingers have welcomed two more foster children into their home; in February, they were able to officially adopt Nola Ann, while they hope to adopt the second as well, but will cherish any opportunity they have with the baby. In a story on CBSSports.com, Mark stated, “Don’t make me and Toni out to be heroes – neither of us are. I’m just some regular common dude. I don’t want it to be that I’m some savior.”
The writer, Gregg Doyle, followed with a perfect summation: “Sorry. They are heroes. Foster parents, this small army of selfless soldiers, are heroic. They open their homes and their hearts to children from awful backgrounds, strangers with heartbreaking histories, and they spend weeks or months or maybe a lifetime trying to make it better. It’s not a game-winning basket in the final seconds. It’s not a conference or national championship. It’s better than that.”
The final Special Award winner is Paul Hoolahan, the chief executive officer of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the sponsor of tonight’s event. While the Sugar Bowl is known throughout the country for its annual college football classic, it is recognized in the local region as a true champion for youth sports and events which may not otherwise exist if not for its support. Factoring in a recently announced sponsorship with the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, the Sugar Bowl is involved with over 40 non-football events annually.
Hoolahan has coordinated the efforts of the Sugar Bowl since 1996. Working hand-in-hand with the dedicated Sugar Bowl Committee, he has ensured that the Bowl remains at the pinnacle of college football, first through its association with the Bowl Championship Series and now with its 12-year contract with the College Football Playoff. Over the last decade, the Allstate Sugar Bowl has injected over $2 billion into the local and state economies.
“The committee wanted to recognize Paul and the Sugar Bowl for the tireless and unselfish work they do for the community,” said Sports Award Committee chairman Will Peneguy. “Their support for the wide-range of community events, including this Hall of Fame, often goes unrecognized, which is what Paul and the Sugar Bowl prefer. However, the selection committee felt public recognition is long overdue.”
Each year, the Greater New Orleans Sports Awards Committee is truly honored to have the opportunity to honor those deserving of recognition in its full-range of categories. The Special Awards allow them to also draw attention to other deserving individuals and groups, such as this year’s very diverse group of four.