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The Sideline: Joe McKeown builds another winner at Northwestern

March 6, 2015

Welcome to The Sideline, a series of profiles of Northwestern’s coaches where The Daily’s sports staff provides detailed looks into the lives and personalities of all 19 varsity coaches.

Basketball has always been important for Joe McKeown.

McKeown is now in his 28th season as a Division I women’s basketball coach, and his seventh at Northwestern.  This year, McKeown has led the Wildcats to their first 20 win season since 1996 and they are expecting to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.

The Philadelphia native spent his younger years watching college basketball at one of the city’s famous arenas, The Palestra, with his younger brother and father who worked there. It was this time with his family and the area he lived in that pushed him out of the stands and onto the court.

“Back in the sixties, the Big Five and The Palestra, everybody played there,” McKeown said. “That was everybody’s home court.  So when you were a kid, to go to a game there, they had double-headers, Hall of Fame coaches. It was just a great atmosphere.”

McKeown was able to master his own game at Father Judge High School in Philadelphia, and when he graduated, he played college basketball at nearby Mercer College in New Jersey. McKeown would later transfer to Kent State and as he approached his senior year, he thought he had his plans after college figured out.

“I was going to be a part of their coaching staff, be a graduate assistant, and then try to pursue some opportunities overseas,” he said. “My coach got fired right in the middle of my senior year.”

With his coach no longer there to take him under his wing, McKeown was forced to find a new way to keep basketball at the center of his universe.

McKeown’s “big break” came when he was supposed to try out for the Detroit Pistons, and coach Dick Vitale. Before training camp, Vitale told McKeown the team would be going in a different direction, and McKeown found himself working at basketball camps in Pennsylvania.

Playing on the court to sitting on the sideline

From there, he gave coaching a try.

McKeown’s interest in coaching women instead of men was sparked during his time at Kent State, where he watched the school’s women’s program in the early stages.

“When I was at Kent State, when I was playing, we were just starting our women’s program,” he said.  “I was a gym rat, so a lot of them were in the gym and I was like, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.'”

McKeown became the coach at Burlington County College and from the second he got there, he learned what types of challenges he would face as a women’s basketball coach.

“They didn’t win a game the year before,” McKeown said.  “So we had five players. I got another one, but then a girl eloped on me, so I’m back down to five … We’d finish the game with three players sometimes. So it taught you how to be creative.”

Where the legacy blossomed

McKeown would become an assistant coach first at Kent State, and then at the University of Oklahoma.

He got a chance to run things at New Mexico State, and led the team to the NCAA tournament, but after his third year, he was forced to deal with the harsh reality of college athletic financial troubles.

“At the time, New Mexico State was having a lot of budget issues and crunches,” he said.  “We only had eight scholarships and they were going to reduce it to mostly in-state.”

McKeown was looking for a new job with a kinder budget and an east coast location.

In came George Washington University.

GW was in a transition period with both its men’s and women’s basketball programs and was looking to make to make a splash in the D.C. basketball world.

McKeown knew he was in for an uphill battle when he arrived at GW, but he also was in for a surprise.

“By the time I got there, school had already started, so it was really late,” he said. “And she was there and I walked in, and I was like, ‘Hey that’s Jennifer Shasky. What are you doing here?’”

Jennifer Shasky Calvery was Miss Basketball for the state of Michigan, and when GW changed coaches before her freshman year, McKeown was not expecting her to be there. What McKeown did not know, however, was that GW was the perfect fit for top recruit Shasky Calvery, no matter who was coaching.

“I was interested in being a part of a program that was going to be building and turn from kind of not a great program into what I thought could be an excellent program,” Shasky Calvery said.

And build they did.

After failing to finish above .500 for the first time in his coaching career in his first year at GW, McKeown took the program to new heights. He would win 20 or more games in 17 of his next 18 years at GW, and the team played in 15 NCAA tournaments.

During his tenure, McKeown racked up 441 wins and picked up his 500th career victory during his final year at GW. Although the numbers look great, they tell only part of McKeown’s story at GW.

Shasky Calvery said she remembers McKeown being an active member in the surrounding community during his time there. Whether it was inviting homeless people in the community to games and assuring them food and a warm seat, or having the team “adopt” a young girl from a single parent home when the parent was sick. He took care of the people in the community when he could.

From practices to games, McKeown was a mentor to his players and he taught his group about much more than the X’s and O’s of basketball.

“(He taught) focus and intensity and passion, but mixed it up with his joy,” Shasky Calvery said. “I think the intensity and focus is something that I have been able to hold on and take with me in my professional career, but I like the good times, the goofy times, just having fun.”

In the 1996-97 season, GW went 28-6 and had a five seed in the NCAA Tournament.

After advancing to the Sweet 16, GW was set to play the top seed in their region, North Carolina. In a game McKeown said was the best moment of his coaching career, his team upset UNC and advanced to the Elite 8 thanks to a 55-46 win.

His team was one win from making the Final Four, a place it felt like it was destined for all season, but Notre Dame beat GW 62-52, and the season was over.

“You’re going from one extreme to the other,” he said. “You got this great momentum, and then to get beat, you’re still down there, you’re still in the gym, you’re like, ‘Our season’s over. It can’t be over. We’re going to win the national championship.’”

Fans wore “In Joe We Trust” shirts. It looked like GW was on the verge of reaching new heights, especially after back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2007 and 2008.

But McKeown was forced to make a tough decision and decided to leave GW to find better care for his then-14-year-old son Joey, who had been diagnosed with autism.

“My dad is one of the most selfless people you will ever meet,” Meghan McKeown (Medill ’14) said.  “What man would give away his successful career for his son?”

From D.C. to Chicago 

After 19 years at GW, McKeown and his family packed their bags and prepared to swap views of the National Mall for the Chicago skyline when he was offered the head coaching position at NU.

“It was really hard, I’m not going to lie,” he said. “It’s where you raise your family, your kids were born there, and you’re saying we’re going to move to Chicago. Especially after we did it, we got to Chicago and were like, ‘What did we just do?’”

The state of the NU women’s basketball program when McKeown arrived was, in his words, “a mess,” and from a personal perspective, the move was hard on McKeown’s family. His eldest daughter, Meghan, was right in the throes of high school. The change of environment was also a challenge for McKeown’s son.

And, for the first time in his life, McKeown had a losing season. His 2008-2009 squad went 7-23, and didn’t win a single game on the road that year.

For a coach used to Sweet 16s and Elite 8s, it was a step — more like a leap — backward. Yet, in the same measured breath that McKeown used to describe his struggles, he praised that first NU team he lead.

“I gotta tell you it was hard when I got here. It was just very surreal more than anything else,” McKeown said. “But that first team we had here, I give them a lot of credit. We laid a lot of bricks.”

Family matters

McKeown is the first to admit that he couldn’t have done this alone.

“I think that any coach will tell you that you have to be lucky, and to be successful you have to have a family that supports you,” McKeown said. “(My wife) is so selfless. When we lose it hurts her as much as it hurts me.”

If the McKeown family wasn’t invested enough in the first place, his daughter Meghan decided to attend and play for NU from 2010-2014, something McKeown said helped him balance everything.

Meghan said that her father did a good job of keeping “work at work” and being Dad at home.

“He’ll dance to Taylor Swift, Springsteen, he’s a Sinatra fan,” Meghan said of her father’s demeanor outside of the gym. “There’s never a dull moment.”

McKeown said it was really important to him and his wife that their children felt “connected,” as if Chicago was their home. McKeown said if anyone were to ask them these days, his kids will say they’re from Chicago.

Brick by brick

McKeown’s Cats have come a long way since that first 7-23 season.

In his seventh regular season at NU, the women’s basketball squad is 22-7. The Cats are ranked No. 24 in the nation, the first time NU has cracked the top 25 in the AP poll since 1996.

It’s safe to say McKeown has slowly but successfully built the NU program into a nationally recognized entity, but he said the numbers don’t mean much to him.

“I think coaches that would be honest with you would tell you that the numbers themselves are less important than the way you’re playing, the way you’re building, the way you compete,” McKeown said.

McKeown, who garnered his 600th career win earlier this season, is a hands-on coach, his players said, always giving individualized attention and critique, something that can make all the difference.

“He always has something to say in practice whether it’s something you need to work on or something you’re doing well,” senior Karly Roser said. “Just keeping your confidence up that way and making sure that external stimuli aren’t bothering you too much.”

Beyond the scoreboard

Numbers don’t mean everything to McKeown, but his players do. As a coach who willingly took on two struggling teams and committed to building them up, it’s evident his priorities lie beyond the stats sheet.

For McKeown, it’s all about legacy, and not the kind that you can see on paper.

“Most important are just your players, that they appreciate what you’re doing for them,” McKeown said. “Maybe not so much when you’re going through it because that’s hard, but maybe two, three years later they realize you’re trying so hard every day to help them. Sometimes tough love is a hard thing.”

Yet, somewhere in the middle of that tough love is consistent encouragement.

And although his grey hair reveals the long years he’s dedicated to basketball, McKeown isn’t nearly ready to permanently sit on the bench.

“I feel like I’m at a school where we can get really high character people and that’s who you want to coach. As long as I can do that, I feel like I have a lot in the tank still,” McKeown said. “We have a lot of unfinished business here.”

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