EVANSTON, Ill. – Almost two years after leaving, Joe McKeown still sounds a little bit like a father when he talks about GW women’s basketball. The names of players, both current and past, still come to mind with ease for him, and the memorable wins and losses McKeown accumulated in his 19 years in Foggy Bottom are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.
McKeown, now the women’s basketball head coach at Northwestern, could be forgiven for his patriarchal tone. He is, after all, the most successful coach in GW history and the man who built the Colonials into a women’s basketball powerhouse during his tenure.
McKeown left GW suddenly in early June of 2008, in part because for his son, who is autistic, the academic options in Virginia were less adequate than the options in Chicago. When Northwestern came calling with a job offer, McKeown made the decision he felt was best for his family, taking the position and leaving GW just two months after coaching the Colonials to the Sweet 16 in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
The transition was not an easy one for McKeown.
“It’s like walking away from your baby,” McKeown said in an interview earlier this month. “Kids I started coaching in 1989, they’re 38, 39 years old, they have kids, they come to our games. It was a family, it wasn’t just a basketball team, it was a family, it was a program. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, to walk away, not just from the team that was in place, but from all the players we had coached over 19 years.”
When he arrived at Northwestern, McKeown faced one of the weakest basketball programs in the country. The Wildcats’ last appearance in the NCAA tournament was in 1997, when 12th-seeded Northwestern fell 61-46 to McKeown’s 5th-seeded Colonials in a first round match-up. McKeown inherited a team that had gone 5-26 the previous season, including a 1-17 finish in the Big Ten that left the Wildcats in last place in the conference.
Even in his second season in Evanston, McKeown still laughs when he talks about the surprises that came out of left field during his first days of work at Northwestern.
“I could have been the left fielder,” McKeown said. “I was just so shocked at how little had been done in basketball here, to support it. You also realize you’re taking over a mess, you come in with your eyes open, but there was a lot of things that caught me off guard, too. But it’s getting better.”
Having won so much and so consistently at GW has made the transition from perennial power to conference bottom-feeder difficult on a personal level, McKeown said. But it has also given him direction and experience that Northwestern’s women’s basketball program has lacked throughout the past decade.
“When you go from a team that’s in the Sweet 16, that’s ranked in the top 10 in the country, you come to a program that finished last every year for 10 straight years, there’s a lot of things that need to be done,” McKeown said. “My first day was like taking a shovel and digging out holes everywhere you turn, saying ‘this is how a top-20 program should be run, this is where we are at Northwestern right now, so let’s just start digging, let’s just start changing everything.’ ”
“It’s frustrating,” he added. “It’s really frustrating, because GW understands basketball, and it took us a while there, too.”
In his second year at Northwestern, McKeown’s turn-around of the program has begun to take effect. The Wildcats finished last year in 10th place in the Big Ten with a 7-23 record, including a 3-15 mark in the conference.
This season, Northwestern ripped off four wins to open the season and won 11 of its first 13 en route to a 13-6 record so far. The team has struggled somewhat so far in conference play, however, losing four straight in between its only two Big Ten wins.
Despite his team’s progress, McKeown said GW is never far from his mind.
“Every day,” McKeown said of how often he misses GW. “Every day something comes up, where you watch CNN, you see Washington, you see the [Washington] Monument or the Capitol or the White House. You remember for 20 years you walked right by there.”
“It’s hard, I’ll be honest with you,” he added. “It’s not an easy thing to put behind you, and you don’t want to, because 90 percent of the memories we have were great memories.”
As for scheduling a possible homecoming to Foggy Bottom against his former team, McKeown said that unless they were playing in the NCAA tournament, coming to the Smith Center as a visitor would be difficult to handle.
“I couldn’t sit on the other bench, I don’t think. I’d have a hard time sitting down at the other end,” McKeown said. “All those banners since 1990, we put up there. I know every kid that played on those teams. It’d be hard for me. I’m just a GW fan for life now.”