It was the season opener for Western Kentucky University and, facing the nation’s top seeded Arizona Wildcats eight years ago, the Hilltoppers encountered an arena packed with cheering Arizona fans in a game broadcast nationally. With his team trailing, Todor Pandov kicked into high gear, scoring 12 points and snaring five rebounds in just 23 minutes. But in an instant, his flame was extinguished.
“I got the ball at the top of the key and drove left, then stopped under the basket to get ready to finish. I came to a jump stop and my knee buckled under, went in and kept going in,” Pandov said. “All of a sudden the thing I loved the most was taken away.”
That quick movement ended his basketball career but helped launch Pandov into a new career as strength and conditioning coach for the University of Miami’s men’s squad, where he aims to help other athletes avoid such injuries.
At UM, Pandov oversees the day-to-day physical and mental improvements of the players. Instead of working with one large group, he breaks the players into three smaller groups, allowing one-on-one attention.
In the weight room, Pandov constantly moves around, stopping at each player. He assists with weights, corrects their form so that they do not injure themselves, and provides words of encouragement.
Knowing each player allows Pandov to be creative with his workouts. Two freshmen joined the team this season as complete opposites. Erik Swoope started the summer weighing almost 250 pounds and needed to lose weight. With Pandov’s help, he’s down to 230 pounds.
On the flip side, Rion Brown weighed 177 pounds and needed to bulk up. After long workouts in the weight room this summer, he hit 195 pounds by fall.
“In the big picture, when it’s all said and done, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing. Working towards getting bigger, better, stronger,” Pandov said.
For Pandov, the journey to the weight room began, in many ways, in that November matchup against Arizona. He was immediately taken to the locker room, and a subsequent MRI revealed he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus, and also chipped a bone.
The sudden injury, his first, ended a season of high expectations for the 6-foot-9 forward from Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Entering his junior year, he averaged 22 points in the first two exhibition games.
“He would have been our leading scorer,” former Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton said in an interview with ESPN in 2003. “He was our most versatile player.”
After college Pandov played a season overseas with the Holland Eiffel Towers and expanded his knowledge of the game. In Europe, he learned more about the fundamentals of basketball. After his injury, Pandov wasn’t able to play at the same level and thought it was time to start a new chapter in his life.
When his season in Europe ended, he joined the University of Texas as a volunteer for the 2005-2006 season, when the team logged 30 wins and advanced to the Elite Eight and came within an overtime of the Final Four.
At Texas, Pandov worked closely with Todd Wright, generally viewed among the top strength and conditioning coaches in the country. Wright said Pandov’s collegiate experience helped in his new role.
“As a player on the collegiate level, Todor understands how [the players] feel,” Wright said. “He’s understanding of the sport.”
Two years later, Pandov moved to Miami and worked as a Graduate Manager for UM, helping assistant coaches with whatever they needed.
The following season, in 2008, Pandov picked up the broken pieces he left as a player at Western Kentucky and became the university’s new strength and conditioning coach. But he remained close to UM Coach Frank Haith, and after two years with his alma mater, returned to UM after Haith sought him out.
“I have a great relationship with coach. Since I was a graduate assistant, we stayed connected and when this position opened up, he hired me. He tells me what he wants the guys to do and I tell him how they’re doing,” he said. Pandov and his wife, Kimberly, have a two-year-old son, Mason, who was born when the coach was with UM as a graduate assistant.
Pandov maintains good relationships with all players, but one is working with him for the second time. Adrian Thomas is now a graduate student playing his sixth season with the ’Canes after suffering season-ending injuries in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons. He understands how important Pandov’s job is to the players.
“Todor focuses more on stretching and flexibility,” Thomas said.
After his dreams of playing professional basketball were dashed in Arizona, Pandov has new dreams. He admires Wright and hopes to one day be considered in the same light as him.
“He is going to be one of the great young talents in strength and conditioning. He has a passion for his players,” Wright said.
Mikayla Vielot may be contacted a firstname.lastname@example.org.