The FAMU Volleyball team won their ninth consecutive title MEAC Conference championship this fall. Their consistency has lead to winning records for the past decade. Whether talking to statistic trackers or players about who is to credit for the program’s success, the answer is Head Coach Tanio “Tony” Trifonov.
Trifonov, who once played at the national level in his native Bulgaria, joined the program as head coach in 1997. He wasted no time, winning his first MEAC championship just two years later in 1999.
“FAMU was selected as the TIME magazine college of the year, so I knew that the potential was there,” he recalls.
The next few years saw constant improvement. The team achieved a top 25 ranking and hosted an NCAA regional tournament. Even when facing out-of-conference competition they proved able, beating number one ranked University of Nebraska in 2004.
“That’s the equivalent of beating Kansas in basketball this year,” Trifonov remarked.
In order to assemble such strong teams every year, he relies on contacts in other countries and attends tournaments on his own time. This year’s team has players from as close as Tallahassee and as far away as South America.
“They come from different backgrounds, different cultures,” Trifonov said. “It’s a fun process to see them coming together as a unit.”
However, the players know the fun ends while working to keep up in Trifonov’s intense practices.
Jessica Bond, a junior business management student from Twin Falls, Idaho, first met Trifonov around the age of ten.
“I was always kind of scared of him…on the court he’s still very intimidating and intense,” Bond said.
Avianca Manning, a sophomore journalism student, recalled her first meeting with Trifonov.
“(My) first impression is like: ‘This is not going to be fun.’ We’re not friends at practice,” Manning said.
When he is not encouraging them to improve their game or sharing stories from his own playing days, Coach Trifonov makes sure the team’s academics are high.
“The only two players who have not graduated got homesick, but everyone else who has been through the program has earned a degree,” he said.
Manning also spoke to his no-nonsense attitude on hitting the books.
“He tells us ‘Keep your grades up…cause if you don’t you’ll be sitting out,'” Manning said.
In spite of success both on the court and in the classroom, Trifonov says that it has not always been smooth sailing for the program. In addition to in-conference teams becoming stronger, he also listed the sports department’s high turnover rate and financial woes among his concerns.
“It’s hard to maintain any consistency in areas outside of the volleyball team as a unit,” Trifonov said. “Since I’ve been here we’ve had five different presidents and eight different AD’s [athletic directors].”
In an effort to lighten the team’s financial burden, Trifonov has cut back on travel, communicates with players via phone or the Internet and watching film to scout opponents.
“It’s been an uphill battle,” he said. “But we’ve been lucky to be able to land some good recruits who can sustain us through that process of cutbacks…but it’s tough.”
Although the current economy is tough on the coach, Trifonov remains hopeful for the program’s future. He wants to host another regional tournament in the school’s new facility and return to NCAA tournament play, and his methods for returning to that level of play is clear.
“You don’t change a winning formula; if you do, you’re probably experimenting more than anything else,” Trifonov said. “So we’re going to continue to win championships and graduate students; that’s basically what it’s all about.”
The players feel that one more component needs to be added to Coach Trifonovs’ equation: exposure.
Ashley Johnson, a sophomore Pre-Med student, said she thinks the team should be acknowledged and celebrated more in the FAMU community because the team is not feeling the support.
“It makes no sense,” Manning added. “We come first in MEAC, we go to the NCAA [tournament] – we can’t get five people.”
Coach Trifonov begins his 13th season this fall, and while the team is hopeful that fan fare increases one thing is for certain: the Lady Rattlers’ consistent play is sure to return.