Oxy Basketball Brings on the Heat
Thousands of men across the country, at varying levels of sport, are coaching women, but you rarely hear of women coaching men.
Few have tried and far fewer have had the opportunity.
That's why when Anahit Aladzhanyan '07 joined the Occidental College men's basketball staff as an assistant coach this summer, she and the program became pioneers, challenging long-established preconceived notions that women can't coach men.
"Heat," as she's referred to on campus, is one of just a handful of women coaching men's college sports and one of just three coaching men's NCAA Division III college basketball, according to a survey of NCAA Division III sports information directors.
But while the voice on the other end of recruiting calls and at practices may have a higher pitch, Heat shrugs off the novelty of coaching the opposite gender, insisting that it isn't that big of a deal. "Basketball is basketball," Aladzhanyan said. "It might be slightly more physical, slightly more aggressive, but in general it's the same stuff."
In that case, Heat's resume would stand out among any group of young assistant coaches. The 26-year-old won four Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Championships as an assistant coach with the women's basketball team, works full-time in the Occidental athletic department as the business manager, and has been Oxy's senior woman administrator since October 2010.
So when Oxy men's head coach Brian Newhall '83 had a vacancy on his staff this summer, he jumped at the opportunity to bring on a coach he says is as good as any -- period. "Heat's the real deal. I could care less what some might think about the groundbreaking nature of hiring a woman. What I'm interested in is the quality of work," Newhall said. "Her basketball knowledge, her communication skills, her work ethic would match up well with any assistant coach in Division III."
That doesn't mean she doesn't turn heads, though.
Heat said that when she talks to a recruit, a referee or an opposing team's coach for the first time, they're usually caught off guard. "There's always a hesitation in the first impression," Aladzhanyan said. "Then when I get to an environment that I've been to before, it's not there anymore."
Junior forward and All-SCIAC performer Deshun McCoy didn't have that hesitation, instead pointing towards Heat's strengths as a communicator and leader rather than her sex.
"I was fine with it," said the team's leading scorer, adding that Heat does a great job of efficiently passing along messages. "Heat keeps it simple which really helps in crunch time. ... She and Brian work well off of each other."
So far, it's been an easy transition from the women's game to the men's for Heat and her players.
"I was actually pleasantly surprised. I totally respect that they are receptive and coachable," Heat said, admitting that she thought there would have been at least some resistance. And if there is, Newhall says it's a good indication of the type of student-athlete the Tigers don't want. "If a recruit has issues with a female assistant coach we probably don't want that individual in our program," Newhall said.
Heat had a unique experience before coming to Oxy and while competing as a Tiger that got her used to going against the grain.
Heat became the first person in her family to attend college, choosing Occidental over her lifelong dream school UCLA, so she could continue to play basketball. After her freshman year at Oxy, though, she was cut from the team. Distraught and confused, Heat began to question her decision to come to Oxy for the first time.
When Jaime Hoffman, now the college's athletic director, took over as the head coach in 2005, the door was open again for Heat. She made the team and more, flourishing as a leader and becoming the team captain in her senior year and an extension of the Hoffman on the floor. "I became kind of a player coach. Jaime let me put in things, from our press break to sets. She let me call the offense off of the bench," Aladzhanyan said. "She really helped me grow in a coaching capacity."
Heat stayed on at Oxy as Hoffman's assistant after graduation, then snatched up several other roles unrelated to basketball as Hoffman noticed her value to the athletic department. She serves on the school's Alcohol and Other Drug Committee, is a member of the Title IX enforcement committee, has recruited for various sports during coaching transitions and served as a hearing officer on the conduct committee.
"Her value extends far beyond the baseline. I am so thrilled that she has become my go-to on virtually any subject, at any time," Hoffman said. "As a leader, she is more of the Coach K type. Quiet, composed, observant, and reflective. I hate to mention age, but those are traits that come to seasoned veterans, and she's got it."
In 2010, she earned her masters in psychology from Pepperdine University and today practices clinical psychology at a nearby agency.
As for coaching the guys, Heat says it's no sweat.
"There really hasn't been a big difference," Aladzhanyan said. "Maybe just the dunking."