When GW women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown came to Foggy Bottom in September of 1989, he never anticipated being here a quarter-century. About to begin his 18th year at the helm of the team, McKeown sees at least another eight seasons with the Colonials in his future, which he solidified in August when he signed a contract extension through the 2014 season.
“I’m really thankful and grateful for (the University’s) commitment,” McKeown said. “When you’ve been here 18 seasons, you wake up and say, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’ But when you surround yourself with such good people, you can see how it gets to this point.”
This point is as the coach of a team that believes it can reach the Final Four come March. After making it to the Sweet 16 last year and losing only one player, it’s not hard to understand why McKeown and his team have such high aspirations.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
When McKeown came to GW after three seasons at New Mexico State, he took on a program that had just wrapped up a 9-19 season. Since then, the program has made 12 NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight appearance in 1997 and a trip to the Sweet 16 last year. He is the winningest coach in Atlantic 10 conference and GW women’s basketball history and ranks 15th all time among Division I coaches.
Now McKeown faces something he has dreamed: the chance to go all the way.
“When I got here, the program was not in good shape,” McKeown said. “There was no tradition. The coach had left in May and no one was here, so nothing had gotten accomplished over the summer.”
The Philadelphia native immediately accomplished turning the squad into a team with a .500 record, winning five more games in the 1989-1990 season than the previous year. His short-term goal, he said, was to start a strong string of recruiting, while,eventually, creating a national power.
“I didn’t come here just to rebuild and then move on. I wanted to recruit, set a good base and then go from there,” McKeown said. “I looked at Stanford as a model. I wanted us to be the Stanford of the East.”
In fact, the best loss McKeown said he ever experienced was at a Thanksgiving tournament in 1992, when the Cardinals – who won a national championship that year – defeated the Colonials in overtime.
“I knew deep inside me that we could compete with the best, and it confirmed that,” McKeown said. “It was kind of like a coming-out party.”
The Colonials became a national power that season, reaching No. 6 in the Associated Press poll. It remained in the top 25 in at least one poll the rest of the decade and has only had one season, 2000-2001, without a top-25 ranking. And while McKeown acknowledges the difficulty in staying with the Tennessees and Connectictut’s of the game, he still believes his program is one of the 10 or 15 best in the nation. Not many can blame him. After all, the numbers are pretty convincing.
McKeown said he’s been lucky to have the opportunity to stay at GW this long and is content to stay for years to come. All three of his children were born at GW Hospital, and, after McKeown took over the team, his wife went back to graduate school and earned her degree from GW in special education. He even joked that his kids sing the fight song on the bus ride to school in the morning.
“This is home for us,” he said.
That’s not to say that McKeown hasn’t had his fair share of opportunities to leave GW to pursue other coaching jobs. He said that he has been offered some other positions over the years, including the chance to be the coach of the WNBA’s New York Liberty for its inaugural season. In fact, McKeown said that he was on the verge of accepting the position when late legendary coach Red Auerbach, whom McKeown calls a mentor, talked him out of it.
“(Red) explained that every coach was going to get fired off the bat (because the league was brand new), and of course he was right,” McKeown said. “He explained how different (professional) franchises are compared to college basketball programs.”
Even within his own sport, McKeown said he has seen radical changes since he began coaching two decades ago, particularly with recruiting.
“There are a lot more players, a much deeper talent pool,” McKeown said. “At the same time, there are a lot more schools that are committed. But at the end of the day, you’re only as good as your players. I’ve found that to be the biggest thing.”
McKeown may have his players to thank for the success they’ve brought him over the years, but, through evidence of his recent signing, GW is pretty thankful for McKeown, as well.