In an interview with GW head coach Joe McKeown earlier this week, the 12-year women’s basketball coach shared his thoughts about his career and motivational style, and revealed some secrets to his success. McKeown returns to the University of Oklahoma for Saturday night’s first-round game with Stanford University. McKeown is no stranger to Oklahoma. He spent three seasons there as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator.
Hatchet: It’s ironic that you’re going back to Oklahoma.
McKeown: It is kind of hard sometimes going back. The first year I left to become the head coach at New Mexico State, I had to go back to Oklahoma in the second game of our tournament, which was tough. We beat them that year. I have been gone so long, most of the coaches there have left, and enough time has passed that it is different this time around. Oklahoma was a great place for me, and I will always appreciate the opportunity they gave me.
Hatchet: Word is that you met your wife Laura while you were an assistant coach at Oklahoma. Any truth to that rumor?
McKeown: Yes. I met her at an Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State football game. All her family is still there in Norman, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa. It’s home for us. We’ll need a lot of tickets for the game on Saturday.
Hatchet: Does your preparation change going into the postseason?
McKeown: Our preparation doesn’t change, our focus changes. Our mind-set is different. There has to be a sense of urgency as a team because you’re playing one game at a time. If you lose, you’re done. For the tournament, you want to really create a frenzy, but you want to keep some control. You can’t get crazy out there. I always tell my players that the pressure is getting to the tournament. This is their reward for having a great year. I don’t want my players to feel the pressure to win these tournament games. The seventh seed shouldn’t feel as much pressure as the one or two seeds.
Hatchet: How would you characterize your coaching style to get the most out of your players?
McKeown: Demanding. We demand a lot, we ask a lot. We try to stay positive. They’re young people. If you don’t ask them to do something they won’t do it. So we ask them. We hope that they respect and expect to be pushed, but they know we care about them at the same time.
Hatchet: How did you find your way to GW?
McKeown: I was offered a head coaching position at New Mexico State. At 29 years old, I really couldn’t pass up the opportunity. I enjoyed Oklahoma, though – the town, the atmosphere. When the GW position opened up, it was just too good an opportunity to pass up. I’m from Philadelphia, so I also wanted to get back on the East Coast. It was more of a challenge getting my wife to move east. Coming to D.C. was more of a shock for her.
Hatchet: Do you think your success has been contingent on your recruiting classes?
McKeown: Any college coach will tell you recruiting is the name of the game. Your job depends on it to get good quality players, but more importantly good quality people.
Hatchet: Do you participate in the recruiting process?
McKeown: My phone is ringing 24 hours a day. In the off-season I go see a lot of players play. You have to as a head coach.
Hatchet: How do you mentally prepare for a game like this Saturday’s?
McKeown: As a team we are always more concerned with ourselves, than about the opposing team. If we take care of business, do the things we’re good at, we’re going to win. If we don’t, we’re going to lose. I tell my kids the only opponent you face is in the mirror.
Hatchet: Do you think your success as a coach in NCAA first-round games is because you get the team psyched up for that first initial game?
McKeown: We played and beat UCLA, (University of) Georgia and Northwestern (University) in the first round of the tournament in the last three years. You really shouldn’t have to play these top teams like we have the last three years in the first round. We had to earn those first-round wins. We haven’t had cupcakes. I think we get by those first-round games because we don’t look past the first round, even when we were seeded really high. You take everybody seriously, respect everybody.
Hatchet: What are the successes and failures of the program you’ve built here at GW?
McKeown: I always set goals at the beginning of each season. We got to the Elite Eight in 1997, but we want to make it to the Final Four. That’s something we want to accomplish. We’ve been very lucky that all of our players have graduated. It would be real disappointing if not all our players graduated. I think that would have been a failure.
Coaching as long as I have, you’re gonna have games you lose that are going to hang with you, but the big picture is what your players are doing once they leave here. Have you prepared them for anything other than being a good basketball player? I think that’s where we’ve been successful. You can’t reach everybody, and get them all to do the things they are capable of, to play at the level they’re capable of. As a coach, that’s the hardest thing. It may not mean to score a lot of points, but it may mean to get a 3.0, so get a 3.0. That’s what we try to teach our kids – to do what they are capable of doing.