clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

After seven long years, Joe McKeown's Northwestern turnaround is complete

New, 25 comments

The legendary head coach came to Northwestern to take over a program in a dreadful state. After seven long years, he finally has the Wildcats back in the NCAA Tournament. And he's not done.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It was a Monday night in March, and Welsh-Ryan Arena was just about ready to go to sleep. The gym's lights shone as bright as ever, but the buzz from earlier that night had subsided. Band members had long since packed away their instruments, cheerleaders rushed to catch a shuttle, athletes headed back to campus, athletic department staffers said their nightly goodbyes. Stillness resonated.

In a corner on a second level landing though, Joe McKeown stood rooted to the spot. Soon enough, he would step out into the cool mid-March breeze, out into the Evanston air and the 7 p.m. sunset that whispered of spring. But he wasn't quite ready. He looked out over the purple-trimmed court, the wooden bleachers, and he couldn't move.

McKeown story W-R

Up above, from the dazzling center-hung video board that contradicts everything else about the arena, McKeown's own face stared back at him. "Let's Dance," it proclaimed. He looked up at it, then out across the arena, then around him to his family members that had stayed by his side. He wasn't quite ready to dance. All he could think about was savoring the moment.

He savored everything. He stood there, overlooking the court and the building that had been the stage for so much dedication, so much work over the past seven years. It was a surreal moment; a surreal scene.

Less than an hour ago, McKeown had sat in a room jam-packed with nervous energy. He had waited anxiously for the moment that would validate the long hours in the gym, in his office, on the recruiting trail.

Finally, that moment had come. And then it had gone. But McKeown couldn't let it fade away. For the first time in 17 years, Northwestern women's basketball was going to the NCAA Tournament. And more than anybody else, it was he that was responsible.

***

It was spring of 2008, and somewhere in Northern Virginia or Washington D.C., Joe McKeown's phone was ringing.

The long time head women's basketball coach at George Washington was coming off another outstanding season: 27 more wins, another NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance, another conference title. McKeown was comfortable. He was having as much success as ever. His next season would be he's 20th at the helm in D.C., and there was nothing to suggest the program was slowing down.

But the day that phone call came, everything changed.

A few weeks earlier, Northwestern had hired Jim Phillips as the university's new athletic director. Phillips came with a fresh approach and ambition, and when he took the job, he immediately made women's basketball a priority.

"We had had some success two decades ago," Phillips says. "And we saw an opportunity to reestablish the program."

For 11 years, Northwestern's program had been downright pitiful. During that stretch, three different coaches had failed to achieve a single winning season, and since 2000, no NU team had won more than three Big Ten games. There were even a couple 0-16 conference marks sprinkled in. Phillips knew that had to change.

"We had had success in women's basketball, but we had gone a couple decades with very little success. I felt that program really needed somebody that had some experience and past success." -Jim Phillips on hiring McKeown

His first big move as AD was to dismiss women's basketball coach Beth Combs. Shortly thereafter, he was on the phone with George Washington's athletic director requesting permission to talk to McKeown.

"I really wanted an established coach," Phillips says. "We had had success in women's basketball, but we had gone a couple decades with very little success. I felt that program really needed somebody that had some experience and past success. And he was arguably one of the very best coaches in the country."

And then came that phone call. On the surface, recruiting McKeown to Evanston seemed entirely unrealistic. But Phillips was confident. He pitched the appeal of the Big Ten. He pitched the opportunity to turn a program around at a great school.

He pitched the possibility of moments like Monday's.

But McKeown's eventual decision to leave George Washington for Northwestern wasn't all about basketball. In fact, depending on who you talk to, it was barely about basketball at all. McKeown's son, Joey, had been diagnosed with autism, and Chicago offered him far better accommodations.

So McKeown put family first. In June of 2008, he, his 509 wins, 17 NCAA Tournament appearances, and five Atlantic-10 Coach of the Year awards, resigned. After two straight 27-plus win seasons, the news was startling. But McKeown saw something in Northwestern that not many other people saw.

"I just felt like the potential was incredible."

***

Northwestern men's basketball coach Chris Collins had a buzzword this past season, his second term in Evanston, when speaking to the media: "process." It was all about building. It was about trusting the process.

Seven years ago, Joe McKeown was in a similar place. When he came to Northwestern, McKeown had never lost. On the other hand, Northwestern had almost always lost. The previous season, NU had endured a 16-game losing streak. It had finished 5-26, and 1-17 in the Big Ten.

In McKeown's first season on the job, his Wildcats went 7-23.

But he always knew it would take some time. "I knew that it was going to be a lot from the standpoint of the things we had to do from an infrastructure, foundation standpoint," McKeown says. "Just building the program, changing the culture of Northwestern women's basketball."

While everybody in basketball always loves to talk about 'learning how to win,' perhaps the most difficult thing for McKeown was learning how to lose. It's something Collins has dealt with in his two years at Northwestern as well.

"When you're a competitor, it's hard to have patience. Because when you go into games, you want to win. When you go into a fight, you want to win every time. But to have the patience to know that sometimes you're getting better without winning, that's hard to conceptualize." -Chris Collins

"Coming from Duke, or coming from GW like I did, you're so used to winning," McKeown says. "You have to go through the growth process, the growing pains."

Says Collins, "When you're a competitor, it's hard to have patience. Because when you go into games, you want to win. When you go into a fight, you want to win every time. But to have the patience to know that sometimes you're getting better without winning, that's hard to conceptualize."

Perhaps one thing that allowed McKeown to conceptualize that was the attitude of Phillips. When the latter hired the former, he was sure not to put a timetable on anything. He was sure not to lay out concrete expectations. Phillips is a competitive guy too, but even he understood that it would take time.

"I just wanted to know we were recruiting the right kind of kids to Northwestern," Phillips says. "You do coaches a disservice if you have some kind of predetermined timeline of how long it should take. There's an evolution that happens, and you want to know that every year, we're getting better. And I think that's exactly what we've got since Joe arrived."

It's not as if McKeown's program hasn't had its ups and downs though. In his second and third years in Evanston, he led the Wildcats to 18- and 19-win seasons and two straight NIT berths. But the subsequent two years were ones of disappointment, losing records, and near-bottom Big Ten finishes. McKeown even admits now that he didn't anticipate the process dragging on as long as it did.

But Phillips emphasizes that those bumps in the road make McKeown's accomplishments all the more special. "He hasn't taken shortcuts," Phillips says. "He hasn't brought in a bunch of junior college kids. He's done it the right way. He's brought in great kids, great Northwestern student-athletes. He's taken a responsible approach, and it's worked out."

As for McKeown and Collins, the two have developed a unique relationship. Their offices are right across from each other, and daily greetings often turn into 30 minute coffee table conversations -- about basketball, about family, about life. Collins refers to McKeown as a mentor.

He even describes a special bond they share. "When you're a head coach especially, it can be lonely at times," Collins says. "Assistant coaches don't fully grasp what a head coach goes through. But other head coaches do. So when you have a chance to have relationships with guys that are going through what you've gone through, [it's important]."

Collins also looks at what McKeown has done as a model for his own program. The project Collins took on in 2013 was very similar to the one McKeown began in 2008.

"You have to have a vision. -Joe McKeown

"For him, it's year six, year seven, they're starting to turn the corner now," Collins says. "They are where we're trying to get to. So he's got a lot of great insights for me about building, and the patience it takes, and how to develop, things of that nature. So I've really been able to learn a lot from him."

It's not easy to succinctly put into words what McKeown has been able to do. The numbers -- from 7-23 to 23-8 and counting -- certainly don't tell the whole story. But maybe the best way to tell it is through McKeown's philosophy. He set a roadmap, and stuck to it.

"You have to have a vision," McKeown says. "Our seniors came here to a program that wasn't very good, and they just bought in to the things that we felt like Northwestern had to offer. Whether that's the great school, or Chicago, or our coaching staff, or the potential... They were the things that we focused on, and we wanted to do it the right way, try to bring in the best student-athletes we could. And you know, it's worked out."

***

The atmosphere inside the N-Club on the second floor of Welsh-Ryan arena was festive. Northwestern women's basketball players, their families, the coaches, and anybody involved with the program, including Phillips and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro, had gathered to celebrate an historic night. Barring something utterly shocking, in less than an hour, the Wildcats would hear their name called on ESPN, and would be heading to the program's first NCAA Tournament since 1997.

The band was also in attendance, and played the fight song. Cheerleaders in full uniform milled about. Purple was everywhere. And so were smiles. There wasn't a single person in that room who wasn't smiling. It was impossible not to.

Another thing that was ubiquitous was pride. All those happy faces also exuded pride. And how could they not? Many of them knew the history. They knew of the dark years, of the losing, of the struggles. They also knew how much this year's team had been through in a matter of a few months, and how much effort they had put in to make a night like this possible.

At around 5:45, the room fell silent to lend its ears to Phillips, who had grabbed the microphone. Minutes earlier, McKeown had spoken, along with his three captains, and they all had nice things to say. There was applause. But when Phillips had the stage, something was different.

In today's world, many public figures like Phillips have become so overtly politically correct, it can at times be robotic. Pat Fitzgerald is that way too. The Fitzgerald you see in front of a camera is a completely different person than Pat Fitzgerald the friend, or Pat Fitzgerald the colleague. Phillips too is often solely concerned with saying the company line.

But on Monday night, Phillips was captivated by the moment. He had his list of thank-yous to say, but he didn't just rattle off names. His sincerity was palpable. He spoke with enthusiasm, with genuine admiration. "I'm telling you," he said as he looked at the young women in front of him. "I'm in awe of you." He was overcome with pride and joy.

For a brief 15 minutes or so after 6 p.m. local time, the smiles and the joy morphed into tension and anxiety. For the players, the wait was excruciating. After the first region was unveiled and ESPN went to commercial, some got up to walk around.

But then the moment came.

It was the moment that everybody in the room had been waiting for. Some, like seniors Alex Cohen and Karly Roser, had been waiting longer than others. But one man, McKeown, had been waiting as long as anybody.

When he rose from his seat and clenched both of his fists, and later when he stood there surveying an empty Welsh-Ryan, it was the culmination of that long process. It was his reward for the faith he showed in the program, in Phillips, in the university, in his players.

If it wasn't already clear, Northwestern women's basketball has arrived. After a long journey that included the occasional detour, it has reached the desired destination.

But McKeown isn't done. He's still building. In the day's leading up to selection Monday, he hit the road for a recruiting trip. So maybe the NCAA Tournament bid isn't the culmination. Maybe it's just the start.

"As great as I feel about where we're at right now," Phillips says, "there's even a better destination I think we can go to under his leadership and the great young women we have in the program."