By Tony Garcia
A casserole breakfast with assorted fruit on each of their laps, Joe McKeown, his wife Laura, and his daughters Meghan and Ally gathered around the television.
Laura poured over the handful of spreadsheets she’d created, breaking down every possible scenario as they watched the final Big Ten game of the season, trying to figure out what seed Northwestern would receive in the Big Ten Tournament.
“At first they all made fun of me for making these,” Laura joked. “But now whenever they want to know who plays who, or what would happen if a certain team won, guess who they come to?”
Most families aren’t so integrally involved in a parent’s job. But most families aren’t the McKeowns
This was less than 24 hours after McKeown stood on the court at Welsh-Ryan Arena with purple and white confetti cascading down on him. That was a 75-58 victory over Illinois on senior night as the Wildcats won the Big Ten Championship — the team’s first in 30 years.
McKeown is the architect of the team and coaching staff who made that possible, something he acknowledged as one of many crowning achievements in an illustrious career.
But even while taking in the sights and sounds of a championship 12 years in the making, embracing his assistant coaches, bear-hugging his players and pumping his fists in the air, he was scanning the crowd before he finally locked eyes on his target.
Laura, Meghan and Ally worked their way toward him as quickly as possible, eager to hug their favorite coach.
The next day at home, everybody dressed in Northwestern gear, the jovial atmosphere continued.
Even though the euphoric feeling following a championship hasn’t happened in a while in the McKeown household — none of the rest of the scene was out of the norm.
“This is what we do,” Joe said. “We watch basketball.”
‘A Family Affair’
Joe and Laura met in the mid-1980s at an Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State football game when Joe was an assistant coach for the Sooners’ women’s basketball team.
They soon married and in 1986 moved to New Mexico after Joe took the first head coaching job of his career at New Mexico State. Three seasons later, he’d turned the Aggies – previously a bottom-dweller in the High County Athletic Conference — into back-to-back champions of the league, earning two NCAA tournament berths in the process.
Correction. As Joe puts it, “we” turned the Aggies into a winner.
“It really is ‘we’,” Joe said. “Laura has done it all with me at every stop.”
In 1989, they agreed to move 2,000 miles east and take on another reclamation project closer to his hometown of Philadelphia, at George Washington University.
This was Joe’s fourth program in 11 years, dating back to his time at Kent State where he was an assistant. Not unusual for a high Division I coach. But three years later, the couple gave birth to their eldest child, Meghan, who quickly became part of the program and changed Joe’s perspective.
“When I was really little, I got to sit with the cheerleaders at the games and they would [throw] me,” Meghan recalled.
“The program had a little George Washington cheerleading outfit made for her and everything,” Laura said.
That’s when it became clear to Joe that he wouldn’t want to just bounce around from job to job even if a more prominent position came open. He wanted stability for his family.
“We loved GW,” Joe said. “We were very comfortable there…[My family] all got to be around the program, which was important to us. So I was pretty set.”
That family-work connection continued into the height of George Washington’s rise. From 1994-98, the Colonials made it to the second round or further in each NCAA tournament including a Sweet 16 and an Elite 8.
All the while, Meghan would attend games – both home and away. While some parents might question their child missing school, the McKeown’s felt it was a no-brainer.
“I had the mentality of Meghan can miss a day of school here and there in elementary school, it’s not tragic if she missed,” Laura said. “What she got out of the environment we were putting her in, the life experiences … where else would you want your children to be raised than around these great, fabulous athletes?
“So it’s always been a family affair with us.”
But in 1995, the McKeowns gave birth to their second child, Joey, who was diagnosed with a severe form of autism as a young boy, and their lives were turned upside down.
The next chapter
By the time Joey was 10, he’d been kicked out of multiple schools. He struggled to behave in a manner consistent with what was necessary in school and the McKeowns hadn’t found anywhere in the Greater D.C. area that could handle what they needed.
“We were dealing with lawyers and school districts and doctors,” Joe recalled. “Just not a lot of great things were happening for him. We were really struggling.”
The McKeown’s had seemingly exhausted every option. At one point in the mid-2000s they were so desperate they floated the idea of a plan to temporarily split the family, which now had a third child in the picture, Ally.
Laura found a school in Maryland that would accept Joey. So the plan was, Laura, Joey, Ally and Laura’s mother – who has lived with the McKeown’s the past 25 years and was Joey’s caretaker — would move there while Meghan stayed with Joe in D.C. and finished high school.
Around that time in the Spring of 2008, Northwestern had hired a new athletic director, Jim Phillips. He knew about McKeown’s pedigree and targeted him as a potential candidate for Northwestern’s opening.
“I came first by myself to see Northwestern,” Joe said. “Then [Phillips] brought out our family and we saw that we’d have what we needed here.”
A program that could help Joey. Excellent schools for Meghan and Ally. A supportive community for his family. And the word from Phillips that he would give Joe the time and resources to build the program in the way he felt was best.
And that was that.
McKeown left a team coming off back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances. One that was set to return nearly its entire starting lineup including future WNBA player on the roster.
He gave up all that to take over a Northwestern program which hadn’t won more than eight games in nearly a decade. For so long, Joe didn’t want to move because he didn’t want to uproot his family. This was the ultimate Catch 22 – he felt he needed to move to help his family.
“We thought it was best for us,” Joe said he remembers thinking about why he took the position. “We’ve only lived two places in 31 years. A lot of people in this business go four or five places in that time.
“But I didn’t want us to have to move our family around … I’m proud of that.”
A slow climb
It was a slow climb to the top for the McKeowns and Northwestern.
The Wildcats finished 8th or lower in the conference in each of his first six years. However, there was improvement, finishing better than .500 overall in three of those seasons; something the program hadn’t done in a dozen years.
During that time Meghan had the ultimate chance to connect with her father, playing under him for four years and serving as a captain her senior year. She has seen both sides of her dad and said she loved that she got to play for him, but also appreciated his ability to keep them separate.
“He’s always left his work at work,” Meghan said. “And he’s always been present with us at home, so that’s been really great.”
The year after she graduated, in 2015, the Wildcats made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 years. It felt as if the program was on an upward trajectory, but a plethora of factors slowed down growth the next few seasons.
Welsh-Ryan Arena underwent major renovations, so the women’s team had to play the 2017-18 season at Evanston High School. Not only did that throw the team off-balance, it made recruiting more difficult.
“We did our best to go on and keep everything as normal as possible, but the truth is that hurt us,” Joe said. “It disrupted all the momentum we had.”
Still, he was able to convince some of the best players in the country he had a vision for how to turn the program around.
“He knew that I wanted to be a part of something that could become great, I didn’t want to just do something easy,” said All-Big Ten guard Lindsay Pulliam. “He knew me since I was a little girl because my aunt worked at George Washington, so I knew he’d treat me right.”
“Joe told me he would treat my daughter like his second daughter,” he said in the bowels of Welsh-Ryan arena just moments after his daughter’s team was crowned Big Ten Champions. “He’s done exactly that.”
With the help of athletes like Pulliam, that once-lost momentum was recaptured this season.
Northwestern was expected to host an NCAA tournament game at the end of this month, a tournament that never happened after it was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Wildcats would have been the favorite to win their opening round game and had a genuine opportunity to make the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history.
On top of that, Joe was named one of four National Coach of the Year finalists.
He was honored for the recognition and extremely proud of the success his team had this season, but those are secondary to what truly matters to him.
“I’ve had a great career… but the best part is that we do it with our whole family,” Joe said. “It’s special.”