"Maybe the worst program in the history of the Big Ten," he said.
McKeown carried a perfect resume to Evanston: 509 wins, 16 NCAA Tournament appearances, and a reputation as one of the best coaches in women's basketball.
McKeown also held a profile larger than Northwestern. He counted Red Auerbach as one of his closest friends, with a photograph of the legendary coach hanging in the center of his office.
But most impressive were the 441 wins at George Washington, where McKeown achieved stunning success. He won more than 20 games in each of his last nine seasons, building a power from scratch.
"My dad was the king there," said his daughter, Meghan, who now plays for him at NU.
He looks the part in another office photo—this one taken after GW beat California to reach the 2008 Sweet Sixteen. Seated next to two of his players, he's smiling. It was his last win there.
Now, six years later, Northwestern has proven to be his slowest rebuild. The team reached two NITs—an obvious improvement—but still lacks its breakthrough season.
After McKeown earned his 500th win on Feb. 4, 2007, George Washington gave him a banner that reads: "500 wins… and counting."
Nearing 600 wins but slowing his pace, McKeown stashes the banner under his couch.
Sometimes, the process can be even sweeter than the outcome.
In the 1970s, the Pocono Mountains were at the center of the basketball world. Then, coaches and players could descend on one place and share knowledge.
At the time, McKeown attended Mercer College in Trenton, N.J., a team coached by Howie Landa. This ignited a passion: Landa ran Pocono camps and had him work there. Even during the winter, Landa would speak at Nike camps and bring McKeown along.
"I was a gopher, doing everything," McKeown said. "I would work in the hospitality room and make sure Mike Krzyzewski got there on time. You had access to [coaches]."
The inspiration was in place. After finishing his college career at Kent State, McKeown might have started to work in the men's game if not for an unlucky break. His coach, Rex Hughes, was fired during his senior year, which seemed to rule him out of any staff positions.
But when the women's team expanded its coaching staff, McKeown slid in as a graduate assistant. It was women's ball from there.
His rising profile was complete by 1983. Oklahoma coach Maura McHugh picked the unproven Philly boy to join her staff. He never looked back.
"I was persistent," he said. "I kept bugging her, you know? Kept calling her back. You had quarters and payphones, writing down numbers on little pieces of paper you're trying to dig out of your pocket. I owe her a lot."
'Start from scratch'
"I didn't have the experience, but I had the desire," McKeown says.
It worked: he learned quickly and left quickly. The three Oklahoma teams he coached won more than 20 games, and in 1986, New Mexico State hired him as head coach.
He was only 30 years old.
"Like most 30-year-olds, you think you know everything," he said. "But when you sit in that chair, you realize: ‘I don't know anything.' It's like a sledgehammer hits you in the back of the head."
McKeown's strategy was one that defined his coaching career. He let his players play.
After inheriting a talented roster that he said averaged only 55 points per game, the Aggies finished in the top five nationally in scoring.
But it was as though he lacked a true challenge. Oklahoma won immediately; New Mexico State went a crazy 68-20 during his tenure. When he heard from George Washington—an opportunity to move closer to home—it was the strange but perfect fit.
So he accepted a new job and entered to chaos. GW had won seven games the year before. And worse, they took five and a half months to decide on McKeown as their coaching replacement.
"It was a mess," he said. "Everything was just left, nobody there. "You could start from scratch and pick up the pieces, and that's what I tried to do."
'A lot of old memories'
On Feb. 18, 2012, George Washington flew McKeown and his entire family into town to induct him into its Athletic Hall of Fame.
"All of our players came back," he said. "That was an unbelievable day for our family."
"It brought back a lot of old memories, a lot of emotions," Meghan McKeown added. "You look at the banners and they're all his."
Under McKeown, GW won the Atlantic-10 conference championship nearly every year. The Colonials averaged more than 23 wins a season. Their only flaw was a lack of NCAA Tournament staying power, never advancing past the Elite Eight.
When you spend that much time in one place, you form a community. McKeown was revered around the area, and is still widely considered one of the best people in the sport.
But he finally left to do what was best for his family. Graham Hays of ESPN wrote a feature that perfectly brings the situation to light. Changing jobs would provide better resources for his son, Joey, who suffers from autism.
Framed above McKeown's desk is a carefully colored drawing with the words: "Joey McKeown Northwestern Basketball."
Given the circumstances, McKeown picked up the phone when NU athletic director Jim Phillips called. It was a decision he had to make, and 19 years later, he started again.
"It was really an impossible situation," he said. "They had been so good to me and my family … It's still hard, sometimes. It's not an easy thing."
'One of the greatest'
Joe McKeown did what Joe McKeown does: He turned NU around almost immediately. In his first season, the Wildcats went 7-23. The next year, they went 18-15.
McKeown often credits "luck" as part of the equation, this time citing Amy Jaeschke. The 6-foot-5 Wilmette native, for whatever reason, joined the program even before his arrival. She would lead the team to two NIT berths.
Then, he won his most heartfelt recruiting battle, getting Meghan to commit to play for him.
It was a difficult transition from Washington, but the entire family bought in. Meghan packed her bags for Evanston in the middle of high school—not an enviable situation for a teenager. Still, with minimal pressure from Joe, she spurned Yale and other suitors in favor of NU.
Today, she spares no words about her father.
"He is one of the greatest people you will ever meet," she said.
Even without reaching his full potential, McKeown has earned victories across the school. He's universally appreciated by the media, with his calm and sincere answers. Phillips extended his contract through 2017. There's no reason for change.
Although the program seems stagnant, with his last three teams a combined 14-34 in Big Ten play, McKeown looks set to reach the milestone with his team contending.
But it is the man, and what he stands for, that led to a recruiting surge that might define the future of this team.
'In a good place'
Nia Coffey, ESPN's No. 24 player in the class of 2013, took an unofficial visit to NU campus in her junior year. Coffey said she wasn't familiar with the coaches.
She left, not with a fact about win totals, but with the knowledge that Joe McKeown could be her coach.
"He was open and honest," Coffey said. "He just made you feel like there was a sense of family.
"He knows how to connect with his players. He understands everyone's situation. He just makes you better."
This will not be the season Northwestern makes the tournament. Next year might. The Wildcats start three freshman and two sophomores, with many being highly touted recruits.
Speaking with McKeown, you often understand the pressure he faces. He criticized the idea of short-term thinking, knowing that this time, it will take a while.
"Society right now, because of social media, everything has to be done yesterday," he said. "Everything is so easily accessible that there's not a lot of patience in college sports. Everything is instant.
"I feel like we're in a good place. I feel like in the next two or three years, we could be one of the best programs in the Big Ten."
'A great teacher'
Late Tuesday afternoon, McKeown runs Northwestern through practice. He stands at midcourt and watches, quietly.
Once at 4-4 in the Big Ten, poised to make a run, the Wildcats lost all seven of their February games.
After beating Wisconsin Sunday, they travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament tomorrow. McKeown pulled out the 1990 trophy for practice, as the hope never fades.
Even during the recent losing streak, McKeown refused to call out his players. Instead, he watched game film for several hours, and then corrected their mistakes the following practice.
"I don't know too many coaches who do that," Coffey said. "It's his philosophy. He's a great teacher."
And he stays positive.
"I don't get caught up so much in numbers. I look at our team, our progress, the foundations we're building," he said. "So I feel like we're doing great."
The calendar flips soon, to year seven. McKeown might give NU that coveted Tournament berth. He might not.
At every stop, it was not always about the wins and losses. It was about the process: rebuilding teams, working with players, sticking with family.
Thirty or so times each year, the clock runs out and the game ends. But, really, Joe McKeown is a man to be admired, because he does everything right in between.