McKeown’s path to success: How he made it to Foggy Bottom and the times he almost left

It wasn’t always like this for Joe McKeown. Before the national prominence, and the respect and the ability to buy a kid like me breakfast without thinking twice about the money, Joe McKeown was just a 25-year-old trying to get his first head coaching job. He had originally applied for the men’s basketball position at Burlington County College in Pemberton, N.J., but he didn’t get it. So they offered him the women’s team.

“I literally have nothing going on, Jeff. Nothing. So I’m like, ‘All right.'”

Hearing that he once had nothing is hard for me to picture. We’re sitting at the Metro Diner in Arlington, Va., by way of his Lexus. I’m a senior paying GW $40,000 a year to go to school, and he’s the head women’s basketball coach getting paid by GW more than seven times that.

But the first job paid him $500 for the entire year. And that was 1980. Needless to say, McKeown worked some part time jobs in addition to his coaching duties, but 23 years later, none of those other jobs stand out enough to spark a specific memory.

“But I remember having no money,” he says. “A masters degree and like eight bucks in the bank. I had this old beat up car that I bought. I was like ‘Man. Not what I envisioned at that time.'”

His team wasn’t much to envision either. The year before his arrival, McKeown said the Burlington County College women went 0-20. Under his tutelage, they improved to 6- 18 that first year, despite a matrimonial problem.

“I only had six players and one of them eloped,” he says laughing. “Honest to God. I coached a game one time, triple overtime with three players. The others fouled out and we lost in triple-overtime. We should have won. The referee killed us.”

Our breakfast is the morning of a game against Howard University, a terrible team that GW should annihilate. Over his 15 years at GW, McKeown says he developed the routine of taking a walk before each game to grab something to eat, usually somewhere in Georgetown. But we drove today, with the temperature in the mid 30’s.

McKeown sits across the table, telling me these stories, wearing the warm up suit it seems all coaches wear, his a navy blue GW version. His hair has grayed, but actually more towards white or even silver than gray, and his skin has a few more wrinkles at 47 than the old pictures in the media guide.

But thinking about his days coaching a team of three girls in triple-overtime, McKeown’s eyes have a little glaze to them. I can tell he’s looking right through me, picturing some scene in Pemberton, N.J., 23 years ago.

“Back in the day, you know. You don’t know any better.”

* * *

Two days before we sat eating omelets at the Metro Diner, McKeown was coaching his George Washington Colonials against Syracuse University at the Smith Center in Washington D.C.

With GW up by 25 about midway through the second half, McKeown stands watching the action on the other side of the floor, when a foul is called against GW.

“She bought that foul! She bought that foul!” he screams towards the refs, although which particular ref is not quite clear. “She was backing up!” he yells, as he leans backwards, either imitating the opposing player or preparing for a limbo contest.

The ability to still be angry during a blowout in his team’s favor is a sign of all that Joe McKeown has accomplished at GW. 10 NCAA Tournament appearances in 14 seasons. The most victories of any coach in the 19-year history of the Atlantic 10 conference. Four A-10 Coach of the Year awards. Two trips to the Sweet Sixteen and one to the Elite Eight.

His team has also been virtually unbeatable at home throughout his tenure. So beating the hell out of a weak Syracuse team was expected for a program like GW, even if the Colonials aren’t playing well.

A few stupid turnovers and sloppy play late brings out “the McKeown face,” a perplexed look that can be aimed at his own players, the refs, or nobody in particular. The mouth opens slightly, as the head sticks forward an inch, and the eyes bulge a little, projecting astonishment at what they just witnessed. And of course the hands are out in the air, palms up, as the head moves from its target to anyone who might have an explanation. I’ve seen the McKeown face at least five times a game since I started covering the women’s team last year.

“You work on something over and over in practice, and then they don’t do it in a game,” he says when I ask about the face. “Or the refs are mailing it in, because they think ‘Oh, this is GW against Syracuse and it’s not a good game and I just wanna get out of here.’ But you work so hard during the week and you expect the same from them.”

Despite shooting poorly, GW beats Syracuse by 22 points. After the game, McKeown looks like they won by two. There have been coaches who say that after many years pass, they start expecting to win, and as a result, the losses hurt more and the wins don’t feel as good. After his press conference, I ask McKeown if this is the case for him.

“Well, when you’re young, you care more about the numbers, the wins. But now, you measure your team against themselves more, how you’re capable of playing. Tonight we just didn’t play well, Jeff. We didn’t shoot the ball like we can.”

* * *

McKeown could always shoot well. Growing up in Philadelphia in the 60’s and 70’s, he competed on the playground like most kids who loved basketball. And he would go watch games at the Palestra, the most famed arena in college hoops. Today, it’s just home to University of Pennsylvania, but then the Palestra housed all five Philly college basketball teams.

“Three, four nights a week there would be games, and some nights there would be doubleheaders,” McKeown remembers, sounding excited as he thinks about those days. “And my father used to work there, so he could get me in, and that really influenced me, watching those games.”

“The high school playoffs were in the Palestra,” he says, even more excited than before. “So to get to play in there, that was like a religious experience.”

McKeown wanted to play for one of the five area colleges, and thought he was good enough. But none of them recruited him. He ended up being told about Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, N.J., so he went there for a tryout. His only problem was footwear.

“There were these Converse shoes back then that just came out and they were suede and they were low. So whatever color they were would bleed through and turn your socks that color. Everybody wanted them. And I went to the Mercer tryout and there were 400 kids there, and my shoes from the playground were worn out, so a buddy of mine from the playground lent me his Converse suede shoes. They were a size 12. I wore a size 10. So I wore four pairs of socks.”

Because McKeown wasn’t very tall and wasn’t very big, and maybe because they saw he was wearing four pairs of socks, they didn’t let him play until the second last group. With everyone else tired, McKeown remembers running circles around everyone. “And the coach had been out and he came back in and saw me, and was like ‘Hey, this kid can play.’ So I got lucky.”

By the time he started his first year at Mercer, that coach had taken another job. And the new coach didn’t think so highly of McKeown. So he sat, unhappy most of the year, and the team didn’t meet expectations. But the old coach came back for McKeown’s second year, and he finally got to start. The team went 33-1 and made it to the National Junior College Athletic Association championship game, before losing.

Thinking about Mercer, McKeown says, “It was the best thing that happened to me.”

“Playing at junior college is different though. These kids today (in Division I) have it easy. They know they’re coming back next year. They know everything will be taken care of for them. For us, every game was a tryout.”

Playing point guard and running the offense for a 33-1 team proved a convincing tryout. Division I schools talked to McKeown, including Kansas. “I didn’t know then what I know now about recruiting. They told me I was great. Everybody tells you that. But I was just a backup for them, while they were telling better guys how great they were.”

McKeown ended up going to Kent State, where he was supposed to be the savior, in his own words. But his first year, the team struggled, the coach constantly switched lineups, and McKeown was so miserable, he wanted to leave. But he says he also knew that nobody wants a transfer who could only play one more year, so he stayed at Kent State, where his senior season started much the same as his junior one – on the bench for a losing team.

“My senior year, we start off 1-8, and the AD walks onto the floor at Christmas and says ‘We fired the coach.’ I ended up going from getting abused everyday by him to being an all-conference player my senior year. It was like Disney World.”

McKeown stops for a minute to chuckle to himself.

“I’ll never forget that, the AD walking in, thinking everybody was going to be sad. We had the biggest party that night you ever saw.”

Under the new coach, McKeown started at point guard and the team finished well. One game in particular stands out to McKeown, when they traveled to play legendary coach Dean Smith and his North Carolina Tar Heels.

“I still got the article. Dean Smith said something nice about me, like ‘McKeown kept them in the game.'” He pauses for effect. “Even though we lost by 20,” he says as I laugh. “But I kept us in the game longer than Dean wanted to play his guys, I think he meant.”

Since he was a kid, McKeown says he always thought he would play in the NBA. And after being named all-conference in the Mid-American Conference, Mckeown thought he would be drafted. The Detroit Pistons had just hired Dick Vitale, who had coached the University of Detroit, a team McKeown had lit up his senior year.

“I thought after I had that kind of year, somebody was going to draft me,” Mckeown says. “I thought I was good. And then I talked to Dick Vitale, who coached the University of Detroit, and the year before we played up in Detroit and I played great. So I talked a couple of times with him about going with the Pistons, but at the end it just fell through. That was my NBA shot, Dick Vitale.”

“I saw him a couple times since, and I told him he ruined my career. And he said ‘I should have (drafted you). I took all my own guys and I got fired.'”

* * *

McKeown has never been fired as a head coach, although he quit the Burlington job when he realized he was broke and needed to finally make some money. He had helped out the women’s team at Kent State and then been a graduate assistant before going to Burlington County College, so he had earned his masters. He applied for several men’s and women’s head coaching jobs, but didn’t get any of them. Finally, he ended up meeting someone from an industrial steel company, and figured it was time to get a job that would pay him. They hired him, and he was going to be a salesman for the company, pitching crucibles, among other things.

“We’re training in Buffalo, so I’m hoping I can get Philadelphia, New Jersey, something like that. They send me to Little Rock, Arkansas. They say ‘That’s your territory.’ And I’m like ‘Who?’

“I had no idea what I was selling, but I was pretty good, you know. And I wouldn’t lie to people. I said, ‘Listen. I don’t know what temperature this melts at, but I’ll find out for you.’ And I’d always find out. So guys liked me.”

After making nothing at Burlington, this job paid $29,000 and gave him a car. As he tells me this story, he sees my face at the idea of $29,000, which will probably be above my starting salary in journalism. But mistaking the horror of how little I’m going to make next year for horror at how little he made, he points out, “This was 1982. That was a lot of money.”

As he continued to sell crucibles, he started questioning a career in coaching.

“I started to do well and that was the worst thing,” he says. “Because I started to think ‘Man, if I could do this here, I could really do well in the northeast, where people can actually understand what I’m saying.’

“So you’re thinking, ‘Hey, you chased this dream. It just didn’t happen. Let’s move on. Life’s short. I got two degrees, I played college basketball. I did better than anyone ever expected for me, so just move on.'”

Luckily for GW, he didn’t move on.

* * *

Before he took the salesman job, McKeown had interviewed at University of Oklahoma. Sometime while he was driving in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana or Mississippi – the four states he was assigned to – McKeown heard that the guy they hired instead of him had resigned.

“So I just drove down, and the guy resigned late, which worked out for me. The coach didn’t want to go through the whole process, so I said ‘Coach, I’m living in Little Rock. I can be there tomorrow if you need me.’ And that’s how I got the job at Oklahoma. Just showed up.”

He was an assistant coach at Oklahoma for three years, as the women won 20 games and made the Sweet Sixteen in his final year. Perhaps most importantly, he met his wife Laura in Oklahoma, although they would not marry until he a few years later, in the city for which he left Oklahoma – Las Crucas, New Mexico.

That’s where New Mexico State played, and that’s where McKeown had his first Division I head coaching job. Ironically, he replaced Pat Knapp, who left to coach Georgetown, not knowing his replacement would one day coach his cross-town rival.

At New Mexico State, McKeown inherited what he called a good team, and took them to the NCAA Tournament in his first two seasons. And while he liked it there, the administration was busy cutting the budget, and that meant his program. By his third season, they only wanted him to recruit in-state, since the scholarships were cheaper. “We set the bar too high, and just couldn’t do the job anymore,” he recalls matter-of-factly.

After his third season, the head coaching job at GW had been vacated. And the Colonials first choice fell through.

“It was a mess,” McKeown remembers, laughing and shaking his head. “They didn’t have anybody that worked in women’s basketball for three months. I took the job; my first day was September 15. I walked in and I’m like ‘What have I done? What have I got myself into? Oh my God.”

His wife took care of things in New Mexico, and then joined him in Washington in November.

“We stayed at Milton Hall, which is Onassis Hall now. It was called the Milton Hilton. That’s where we lived. You got keg parties going on all around. I’m the head coach, like 33 or something, and I’m just laughing. ‘What the hell did I get myself into?’ And the program was so bad. Remember that there was no Health and Wellness Center, so it was just the Smith Center. So that upstairs gym was just full all day of students. Everybody was in the Smith Center. You couldn’t practice. You couldn’t hear. Every sport was in there. It was hilarious. And you know where that ADs club is, behind the bleachers? That was a weight room, so you couldn’t charge for your games and they wouldn’t shut it down.

“We’re playing UMass or something and there would be fifty guys up there playing pick up ball.” McKeown turns his head to the side and mumbles some expletives as an impression of what could be heard from those pick up games. “And there’s another 20 guys in the weight room, people jogging around the track, and we’re trying to play a Division I game. So that was my first year.”

The team he inherited wasn’t in much better shape than the facilities. They finished 9-19 the year before, although McKeown says the coach he replaced didn’t recognize some talent on her bench. And a girl named Jennifer Shasky came to play his first year.

“She was Ms. Basketball in Michigan and could have played anywhere in the country. But she just wanted to come to Washington and major in political science so much, she would have paid her own way. So she walks in and I’m like ‘You’re here? You’re at GW?’ And she said ‘Yes coach,’ and I was like ‘Thank you Lord.'”

The team went 14-14 that first year, and 23-7 the second year, including an NCAA Tournament appearance and first round win over Richmond. The next season GW found itself ranked as high as sixth in the country at one point, as the school and McKeown began a decade of consistency that put GW’s women’s program on the map of national respectability.

“I don’t know if I could have survived if I didn’t have Shasky here. Because it was just miserable, you know. The gym, the practice situation. Trachtenberg and Chernak had just gotten here too, the year before that, and they said they were going to do this and this and this, and I was like ‘Prove it, because man, it is just miserable.”

McKeown was referring to the President and top Vice-President of the University, respectively, and they did change things in McKeown’s estimation when they hired Mike Jarvis to coach the men’s basketball team for the 1990-91 season.

“They just said ‘We’re going to upgrade everything we do around here.’ Every time Jarvis went in for something, I was on his heels. Because I knew he could get whatever he wanted because he had a honeymoon. So that was a good time to be here, the early 90’s, once I got through that first year.”

* * *

After GW’s first game this year – a loss to Pat Knapp and Georgetown for the third year in a row, despite GW being ranked 25th in the nation at the time and a heavy favorite – McKeown had a pained expression on his face. It looked like he was about to collapse, just worn out from a disappointing performance, something that has become more common in the last few years.

Finishing our omelets at the diner two weeks after that game, I ask McKeown if he worries that the program is slipping from its peak in the mid 90’s.

“I really thought we could get to the Final Four then. I really thought we could compete consistently at that level. From ’92-’99, I really thought we could just about beat any team in the country on a given night. I really thought we were at that level.”

“But now?” I ask. He responds with a story.

“Two years ago, we were 15-1 in the Atlantic 10. We were 15-0 going into UMass, and we were just exhausted. UMass beat us by one or two. I knew we were vulnerable because I lost (Elena) Vishnaikova. Then Xavier beat us in the (A-10) Tournament, but I was like ‘We’re still all right. We got 20, 21 wins, a national schedule. We’re GW.’

“When we didn’t get into the NCAA Tournament, I was like, ‘We can’t get in on our reputation anymore, and that’s not good. Maybe we maxed this thing out. Maybe this run is over.’ After that Xavier game, I said, ‘Maybe it’s time to move on.'”

* * *

McKeown has been the subject of many rumors over the years. He could have been the first coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, but decided against it after the legendary Celtics coach and GW alum Red Aurebach told him that the only sure thing about the first WNBA coaches was that they’d all eventually be fired.

McKeown was also rumored to be a candidate for the men’s basketball job at GW when former coach Tom Penders left amid scandal after the 2000-01 season. While McKeown is hesitant to talk about the situation, I presented him with the version I’ve come to understand, to see if he thought it was accurate.

From what I’ve compiled from many sources, McKeown hadn’t been that keen on the job at first, but people at GW started convincing him it was a good idea. He finally started to get excited about it, and started to want it, when other people who influence the school started expressing doubts about him. And then he was no longer a candidate.

“There’s probably a lot of truth to that,” he says. “I don’t even know everything. I just know what I was told.”

“What were you told?” I ask.

“First of all, I was never promised anything. Maybe I was led to believe some things that didn’t happen. But I think they were going through a lot of things after what happened to Penders. They were changing gears every day with which direction they wanted to go. You know, it’s a pretty high profile program and a lot of people started to get involved at the time. But you know, in some respects, you were happy that they considered you for that job. So that’s what I took out of it.

“In other respects, the criticisms of coming out of the women’s game and into the men’s game, which people perceive as a recruiting cesspool. People said, ‘Could he survive in that?’ and I would have. I never question that. I’d have figured out a way to get players. I wouldn’t cheat, either, but I would have figured out a way. I’m not sure they recognized that.

“That’s one of the disappointing things. I think they felt like I could coach, that wasn’t the issue. Basketball wasn’t the issue. But could I recruit here? And I told them, ‘Hey, I’ve spent the last 12 years convincing people’s daughters to come to inner-city Washington D.C. with no campus. I think I can get their sons here.'”

GW ended up hiring Karl Hobbs, the top recruiter from powerhouse Connecticut, who McKeown gets along with well and says was the right man for the job. But it seems impossible that the whole incident didn’t have an effect on McKeown’s feeling that it might have been time to leave after the 2001-02 season.

Actually, he almost did leave after that year.

“I got involved at Vanderbilt, but I had just had a baby the week they brought me in for the interview. I had a lot of stuff going on and the way they handled their search was a little bit…” McKeown leans forward a bit and makes a face indicating Vanderbilt did something wrong, and leaves it at that.

“In retrospect, it might have been a good place, but on both ends it just didn’t materialize the last day when it was supposed to. So I’m still here. They treat me well.”

* * *

It’s been 23 years since that first head-coaching job at Burlington County College. 23 years in which he has lived in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and finally Washington D.C. He has his wife Laura have three kids now: Meghan, 12, Joey, 9, and 1-year-old Ally. And after the rough start to his career, the amazing progress that followed and then the past few years, I asked him how he measures success.

“When you’re younger, sometimes you get caught up more in numbers and goals that are out in the open that you want people to commend you for. You don’t want the criticism. You just want the pat on the back. ‘Oh, you put them in the Top 20, or Top 10, or Final Four’ or whatever.

“But as you get older, you realize that those things don’t mean a damn thing. That you’re an overpaid teacher. The minute you forget that, you become a slave to those numbers. Your whole life, your whole value of yourself revolves around how many games you won.”

Thinking about the term ‘success,’ McKeown says with even more affirmation, “When you have three children and a family, you can’t limit your success to your job. I’m sure when your father sees you graduate from GW, he’s gonna say ‘I did something right.’ Even if he had a bad day at work. So I think success comes in so many different ways.”

* * *

Later in the day, GW beats Howard by 25 points. But the Colonials commit a staggering 37 turnovers. Another blowout, and another game that doesn’t please McKeown.

Standing in the hallway of a small gym on the Howard campus, I ask McKeown if watching a bad team like Howard reminds him of his Burlington team, and he laughs. But I ask him seriously, what it’s like to think of where he’s been, and how far he’s come from Pemberton, N.J., with eight bucks in the bank and a beat up car. Does he think of himself in the upper-echelon of basketball coaches in the country?

“You know, I do when I’m talking to some of my coaching friends who have made Final Fours and stuff and they talk to me like I’m at their level. Coaches from Georgia and Clemson and Arkansas. And Geno Auriemma at Connecticut. Then I feel like I’m at that level.

“And then there are times like this,” he says, looking around at the narrow, dirty gym hallways, his 15th season at GW just underway, his team 3-2 after its win at Howard.

“BCC,” he says laughing, and then he quickly rattles off the names of some other junior colleges he faced 23 years ago.

This year, McKeown will coach GW against Boston College, Oregon and Tennessee in the next month alone, all three of which are ranked in the Top 25. But presumably he’ll have more than three players if a game goes to triple-overtime, which I suppose is just another way to measure Joe McKeown’s success.

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