It is nothing new for GW women’s basketball coach Joe McKeown to take the glory and credit away from himself and direct it toward one of his many deserving players. On the eve of what would become his 500th victory as a college basketball head coach, he did it again.
“(Assistant coach) Mike (Bozeman) has won three games here without me, so I’m probably at 497,” he said.
Arriving in Foggy Bottom with 68 wins already under his belt from his days at New Mexico State University, McKeown has led GW teams to 14 NCAA tournaments and is the winningest coach in school and Atlantic 10 women’s basketball history. With a résumé that could perhaps fill its own book, McKeown’s coaching career might have begun way back in the traditions of Philadelphia’s famous Big 5 conference and its legendary arena, The Palestra.
“Even when I was a high school player, I kinda looked up to the coaches. A lot of the high school players looked up to the players,” he said, chuckling. “I don’t know why, but I decided I’d love to coach in the Big 5 at The Palestra every night.”
The names McKeown throws out as he explains his coaching background are staggering. Bobby Knight, John Wooden, Red Auerbach – and that does not even include the Philadelphia legends he grew up watching. But watching him coach, one gets the feeling he is not just a compilation of coaching skills garnered from the men and women he has worked with over the years. For him, every season, and every team, is different.
“That first day of practice is like pulling out a blank piece of paper,” he said. “You can write on it whatever you want. Each year (my staff and I) sit down and try to figure out the best way to play, and what’s going to work with this team.”
As the Smith Center rafters show, he is pretty good at getting the pieces to fit. There are banners hanging from the ceiling to commemorate McKeown’s first NCAA appearance, in 1991, and every year after that. There is just one year -1999 – that is missing.
That is the year, despite its lack of postseason appearance, that might shed light on what has made GW one of the most consistent programs in the country over the last 20 years: the refusal to settle for anything less than its best.
After losing key players to injuries down the stretch, McKeown’s squad struggled and was not given an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But when the women’s National Invitational Tournament came calling to offer the Colonials a spot in the second-tier tournament, decided to talk it out before accepting.
“I said ‘you guys didn’t come here to play in NIT’ and they said ‘we don’t want to play in the NIT.’ So we turned down a bid. We got a lot of interesting phone calls,” McKeown said.
Even with all those banners, there is still one hole in the heart of Foggy Bottom. Ten years ago, the Colonials had the lead with six minutes to go in their Elite Eight match-up with the University of Notre Dame. GW wound up losing 62-52, ending their shot at the Final Four.
“That sticks with you forever,” McKeown said.
This season, GW is ranked in the top 20 in both national polls, and minus, save for a bump in the road at Temple, has not lost since November. Is a trip to the Final Four guaranteed? No. But after 500 wins, McKeown could probably rattle off a few more.