By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 2, 2008
Joe McKeown never dreamed he would remain at George Washington for as long as he has when he arrived in September 1989, a young and ambitious coach taking over his second program. In the vagabond world of college coaching, his tenure at the Foggy Bottom school is unusual.
"To think you're going to coach at one school for 19 or 20 years, I don't think coaches think that way," McKeown said.
Along the way, McKeown, 51, who signed a contract extension through 2014 last year, found success. Including his three seasons at New Mexico State, he has averaged 23 wins per season. He has won more games than any other coach in Atlantic 10 Conference history and made 16 NCAA tournaments. Under his leadership, GW is one of just 10 Division I women's programs to make the NCAA tournament in at least 14 of the last 17 seasons.
"We've played against his teams a number of times," Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt said. "They always bring great intensity and competitiveness."
Tonight, McKeown can win his 500th game as a head coach when 16th-ranked GW (17-4, 5-1 Atlantic 10) plays at Duquesne (11-10, 2-4). Instead of focusing on the accomplishment, McKeown is thinking only about what his team needs to do to beat the Dukes.
"Probably at the end of the year, I'll maybe have time to sit back and reflect on how we got to this point, all the great players," McKeown said.
McKeown has recruited a handful of talented players over the years, most notably Kodak all-American Tajama Abraham Ngongba, now an assistant coach with the program. Four of his players have played in the WNBA, and several more have enjoyed professional careers overseas. But mostly, McKeown has won with players who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and, in one case, a dancer. Kristin McArdle, who graduated in 1992 and earned a Fulbright Scholarship, has performed on Broadway.
"I think he's the most underrated coach in the country because of what he's accomplished," said Texas A&M Coach Gary Blair, McKeown's good friend. "He does more with less than most other programs. He's not doing it with Parade all-Americans that end up in the ACC or Connecticut or whatever. He takes that next level kid and coaches them up."
McKeown's teams are known for their stifling defense. "Blizzard," a matchup zone that takes its name from the Dairy Queen dessert McKeown promised his New Mexico State players in exchange for good defense, has become his hallmark.
"A lot of people play zone," Blair said. "But nobody can play it as many different ways as Joe can. . . . It's not one of those 2-3 zones that you sit back, hold your hands up and play hope-they-miss defense. It is a very confusing, complicated matchup zone that he can trap off of and do a lot of different things."
The only hole in McKeown's r¿sum¿ is a Final Four. He came close in 1997, when the Colonials upset top-seeded North Carolina in the round of 16 but lost to Notre Dame in the region final.
"Joe has a Final Four in him," Blair said. "This could be it this year. He's got those three great senior guards. He could get it done. Don't count him out."
While that 1996-97 season was one of his most satisfying professionally, it was one of his most devastating personally. During that season, he and his wife, Laura, learned their son Joey had autism.
"I will never forget," Laura McKeown said. "We were 0-3 or something like that and I said to Joe, 'If you don't start winning, I may not be able to survive this year.' We went 16-0 [in the Atlantic 10], then we went on to go to the Elite Eight. He was able to pull all that together when everything else around our home was just falling apart."
McKeown always has made an effort to include his family in his work. He took his wife on recruiting trips with him when they were dating. Two days after his daughter Meghan was born, he brought her to the gym. Until recently, when it became too difficult for Joey to attend games, Laura and the kids always went to every GW contest, home and away.
"We're very proud of where [Joey] is and what he's doing," Joe McKeown said. "We just are trying to make the future for him as best we can. We're not sure how we're going to get there. The other biggest thing that we try to do is try to have as normal a life for his sisters."
The McKeowns' oldest child, Meghan, is a sophomore on Flint Hill's basketball team.
"She plays best when he's in the stands," Laura said. "She has an extremely close relationship with her dad. They'll stay up late and watch game film together. They talk about everything. He's very attentive to Meghan."
In addition to Meghan, 16, and Joey, 13, the McKeowns have another daughter, Ally, 5. The demands of coaching combined with the challenges of raising a special-needs child would put a stress on any family's life, but Laura McKeown said the family feels fortunate.
"It's always fun when you're winning. That's the truth to it," Laura said. "And luckily, we've had a lot of fun because we've won a lot of games."
Because of Joey's condition, McKeown has looked into other coaching jobs the past few years. He made inquiries about an opening at Colorado State because of a good school for autistic children near there. He also interviewed at California when the job there opened up because of a highly regarded program for autistic children on the campus.
"That's something we looked at just because we thought it would be a better place," McKeown said. "I didn't think the job would be better. I think my job right here is one of the top jobs in the country. I've won enough games obviously where I've had enough success as a coach that it doesn't matter to me. I could coach CYO league. If that's a better place for our family, that's the most important thing. . . .
"I'd trade all those wins if we could figure out a cure for [autism], in a heartbeat."
¿ DUKE 85, VIRGINIA TECH 50: Wanisha Smith and Joy Cheek scored 14 points each for the No. 9 Blue Devils (16-5, 5-1 ACC) at home.
Andrea Barbour scored 15 points and Brittany Cook had 14 to lead the Hokies (13-9, 0-7), who lost freshman Shani Grey in the second half to a knee injury.
¿ VIRGINIA 74, N.C. STATE 49: Lyndra Littles had 17 points and six rebounds and Monica Wright added 16 points as the Cavaliers (16-5, 5-1 ACC) rolled at home.