Commentary

Coach, family find right fit at NU

Joe McKeown has guided teams to 17 NCAA tournament appearances over 24 seasons

Originally Published: February 2, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Joe McKeownAP Photo/Charles CherneyJoe McKeown hopes the season ends with Northwestern's first NCAA appearance in 14 years.

EVANSTON, Ill. -- Like a lot of coaches, Joe McKeown couldn't resist temptation's touch when what seemed the job of a lifetime opened up at Northwestern. The twist in the usual telling of the tale was that when McKeown left behind nearly two decades of accomplishments at George Washington to take over the smallest fish in one of the biggest ponds in college athletics, it wasn't his lot in life that stood to benefit.

Northwestern was a curious choice for a coach with more than 500 victories and 17 NCAA tournament appearances -- more of each, in fact, than the program that hired him had in its history. But it was the best choice for a father.

So the coach made the move and kept winning because that's what he learned to do better than most in 24 years as a head coach and a lifetime around the sport. And the father made the move and kept hoping because that's all a person can do without a scoreboard to validate decisions. Hope for the best. Hope he did what's right for Joey, his 16-year-old autistic son, and the rest of his family.

Texas A&M coach Gary Blair has called McKeown a friend for close to 30 years, long before either earned his first victory as a Division I head coach.

[+] EnlargeJoe McKeown
AP Photo/Tony AvelarDuring a 19-year stint at George Washington, Joe McKeown earned 15 NCAA tournament appearances, including four trips to the Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight berth.

"What Joe has gone through, nobody knows except me and a couple of close people," Blair said. "What he's had to go through with Laura, his wife, with Joey, that can just change your life. He's already missed one game this year because of [his son's health]. If that was wearing on you every day, trying to be a great parent and trying to be a leader of a Top 25 team, with recruiting and all that, I don't know how he puts it all together. But he's got a great wife that's very understanding and he's got two daughters that also help him a whole lot."

In less than three seasons in his new home, McKeown has provided the Wildcats with a fresh start on the court. Last season's 18-15 record not only marked the program's first winning campaign since 1996-97, but also the first time in a decade that a Northwestern team won double-digit games. And a recent slide notwithstanding, this season still offers hope for the first NCAA tournament bid in 14 years.

It's much the same effect McKeown had when he arrived at George Washington in 1989 after two NCAA tournament appearances in three seasons at New Mexico State. Taking over a program in Washington, D.C., that had just two winning seasons in the eight that immediately preceded his hire, McKeown finished 14-14 in his first season. He then reeled off 20-plus wins in all but one of the next 18 seasons, including four trips to the Sweet 16.

Along the way, he perfected the trademark "Blizzard" defense he developed at New Mexico State, a matchup zone named not for the enveloping, disorienting effect it has on opponents but for the Dairy Queen ice cream staple that he once used as reward for its execution. Perhaps more importantly, he and Laura put down roots in Fairfax, Va., and started a family, first daughter Meghan, then Joey and finally youngest daughter Ally.

There were certainly opportunities to trade in his success at George Washington for a bigger stage. Within a few years of arriving in the Beltway, McKeown had lifted the program to the top of the Atlantic 10, a league that initially still included the likes of Penn State, Rutgers and West Virginia, and into the top 10 in national polls. Other colleges reached out to him with regularity. Twice, first in 1997 and again in 1998, he flew to New York for meetings with the WNBA's New York Liberty.

But he never jumped. After all, as friend Red Auerbach told him in no uncertain terms during one of the dalliances with the Liberty, he had a young family to think about. By lifting George Washington to national relevance, McKeown had earned the closest thing a college coach could get to tenure.

By that time, too, Joey had been diagnosed with autism, adding a new layer of complexity to all things personal and professional for the family. Ask McKeown about Joey now and he springs out of a chair in his office and goes in pursuit of one of a number of examples of his son's artwork that occupy places of prominence amidst a coach's usual array of basketball honors and mementos. There's a drawing of caps from Major League Baseball teams and another with depictions of smiling basketball players, their grins not unlike the one Joey flashes in the photo McKeown proudly offers, a shot of father and son at Navy Pier soon after arriving in the Chicago area three years ago.

I think you become much more aware, compassionate, much more open-minded about things, about the world, about people. You realize how important families are, how quickly things come and go.

-- Northwestern coach Joe McKeown, on raising a child with autism

It is a familiar scene of a father happily bragging on his son, as fathers are wont to do, but it is also something else. It seems important to McKeown to enunciate what the drawings suggest of Joey, a creative spirit who interprets the world around him -- who fills out his basketball team with faces from across the racial spectrum. That whatever Joey might lack in interacting with the world, a mind, a heart and a soul are not on the list.

"There's so many kids that fall under this umbrella," McKeown said of the public perception of autism. "They can learn. They just need opportunities. They learn differently, but a lot of these kids are very smart. I think that's the biggest misconception."

By the spring of 2008, weeks after George Washington came within seconds of playing Connecticut in a regional final, frustration with the school systems near their Virginia home had both Joe and Laura at wits' end. With high school looming on the horizon for Joey, they didn't feel the opportunities available were sufficient to meet his developmental needs. When new Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips reached out to him after Beth Combs resigned as Wildcats coach in early May, and in doing so made a point of providing resources on the educational options available for Joey, something clicked that never had with previous professional opportunities.

Part of what kept McKeown at George Washington was what was best for his family. It was also what convinced him it was time to leave.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Let's get a new start, let's get a fresh start,'" McKeown recalled.

With his unapologetically gray hair and soft conversational voice, McKeown can come across as almost avuncular -- at least until a defensive assignment goes awry or an official crosses him on the court. It's then that the Philadelphia in him comes out, the personality of his hometown softened not a bit by two decades in the hub of diplomacy or his new surroundings alongside Lake Michigan. It's a reminder that he wasn't raised in a time or place where acknowledging the frailty of the human condition was encouraged. You earned what you got and expected no favors. But when confronted daily with the challenges life handed Joey and those who care about him, McKeown found that success is neither individual nor absolute.

"I think you become much more aware, compassionate, much more open-minded about things, about the world, about people," McKeown said. "You realize how important families are, how quickly things come and go, and you become much more patient with people. You grow up in Philly, you've got this kind of block mentality, and you get a little tunnel vision -- 'I'm going to fight my way through this, I'm going to figure out a way around this.'

"When you're dealing with these issues, I guess probably the best way to describe it, you become much more open-minded and much more patient dealing with the big picture of life."

Life still is not easy for Joey. He was hospitalized for three weeks before Christmas with medical issues related to autism, a development that left McKeown unable to travel with the team for a game at Western Kentucky. Joey is doing better now, according to his father, and the family has been pleased with the high school he is enrolled in. But age is likely to bring only more challenges.

"Part of him is a normal 16-year-old boy, and part of him is a kid with a disability who struggles and doesn't understand certain things," McKeown said. "That's where he has a hard time. But he's hanging in there.

"You wake up and he's 16 years old."

Or you wake up and find yourself stocking up on purple and starting a new life in Illinois, a beginning that comes with no guarantee of happy endings. None of it is easy. Uprooted after her sophomore year of high school when they moved, Meghan was a prep star in her two years at Loyola Academy in the Chicago area. With interest from schools in the Ivy League and other East Coast programs, she instead chose to play for her father -- and stay close to Joey and Ally -- at Northwestern. McKeown's office is awash in reminders of his days in D.C., newspaper clippings, jerseys and more telling stories of memories, comforts and friends left behind. But he also trades barbs with football coach Pat Fitzgerald when the Blackhawks face off against the Flyers for the Stanley Cup, talks basketball endlessly with men's coach Bill Carmody and relishes a commute that doesn't involve D.C.'s infamous traffic.

And he wins more basketball games than he loses. It's a skill that brought him to Northwestern and a program that believes he can make it better. And it's a skill he hopes means a better life for Joey.

"We just hope we made the right decision," McKeown said. "You can't look back. You've got to look forward and say we're trying to do the best we can every day."

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.