Sam Houston State University v University New Orleans at the Southland Men's Conference basketball Tournament Game 5

UNO coach Mark Slessinger

Photo by Rick Yeatts

Mark Slessinger never got a chance to meet Eddie Robinson.

But the UNO men's basketball coach knows all too well about coach Rob's legacy.

Roy Brown, the pastor of the church Slessinger attended during his college days at Aurora University in Illinois was a 1966 Grambling graduate and would share stories about coach Rob to Slessinger.

Also, Slessinger spent 11 seasons as an assistant at Northwestern State, just 90 miles down the road from Grambling where Robinson became one of the most legendary coaches in sports history.

So who could blame Slessinger for his reaction Tuesday when asked what it meant to be the recipient of the Eddie Robinson Award at the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame Banquet on Aug. 5 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome?

"There are some moments in your life when you just get knocked off of your feet," Slessinger said. "This is one of them."

Robinson, who died in 2007, would surely be proud of this year's recipient who checks all the boxes of the award's description.

It goes to an athlete or coach or team in Louisiana that demonstrates outstanding achievement in athletics, academics, sportsmanship and citizenship by maximizing the use of limited resources.

Athletic achievement? Check. The proof is proudly displayed in Slessinger's office: the Southland Conference championship trophy, draped with the nets the Privateers cut down after punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

Academic success? Check. Ninety-five percent of the seniors have graduated since Slessinger took over the program six years ago.

Sportsmanship and citizenship? Check. His team has helped with clean-up efforts after floods and tornadoes did damage in the area.

And then there's the last part of the award's description, those two words that made Slessinger laugh when I said them to him: limited resources.

"Limited resources is a frame of mind," Slessinger said. "We're rich in human resources. I don't look at us as limited. I don't believe in that. We are unlimited in human resources and that's what we continue to invest in and put our time in. Our time is more valuable than any money ever could be."

But trust me, he's had limited resources.

UNO has one of the smallest athletic budgets in Division I basketball. Slessinger took over a program that was about to take a step down from Division I to Division III. Enrollment was dwindling, still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. He wasn't naive about what he was getting into, but he refused to use any of that as an excuse.

"This is not a job where you can make an excuse and say 'Oh I wish I had this or if I had this things would be different' because you probably aren't going to have those things. If you make an excuse, eventually it will trickle down to your staff or team. In the end, it's five on five with one basketball. Whether you have a million-dollar budget or not, in the end you're still playing five on five. All that other stuff is lagniappe."

It's the same mindset the now 43-year-old Slessinger had growing up in southern Indiana.

"I didn't know if we were rich or poor growing up," Slessinger said. "I knew my mom and dad loved me and believed in me and put everything they could into me. We are just trying to do the same thing here. These kids don't know if we have a $2 million budget or a $100,000 budget. But they know we are with them every day and we hold them accountable."

It's that accountability that makes Slessinger call what he does every day a coaching ministry instead of a job. Much like Robinson, he's all about watching his players grow and develop.

Unlike his first seasons at UNO, he's now doing it under a little bit more of the spotlight. People around the city recognize him now when he's out and about in the grocery store or in restaurants. They congratulate him.

"My response is always congratulations on YOUR championship," Slessinger said. "To everybody that has been associated with the university through the good and bad times, I'm glad I could bring a little bit of joy and happiness to them."

And now, he will get to add another piece of hardware to his collection.

One of the first people he called Tuesday to share the good news was his former pastor Brown, the guy who had shared so many Eddie Robinson stories with him before.

"This award ranks at the top," Slessinger said. "I never thought I could be associated with such a legendary coach."

The guy the award is named after would surely be proud.

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.