Local women's basketball coaches are rare breed: lifetime coaches and lifelong friends

About 12 years ago, when Joe McKeown was trying to decide whether he should leave a good situation at George Washington to accept a job offer to take over a struggling Northwestern women's basketball program, he reached out to a foe.

Ironically, that foe was also one of his closest friends.

McKeown needed the real scoop about all things that the Northwestern job would entail: from the potential with the program to the grade schools and high schools in the area that would be good fits for his three children, one of whom has special needs.

"I called Doug," McKeown said of longtime DePaul women's basketball coach Doug Bruno. "We had played each other many times, including in the NCAA tournament. We've been friends for more than 30 years now, but we were great friends for quite some time before I even came here."

McKeown says that Bruno told him all about the schools in the Chicago area, about how he raised six sons in Rogers Park, and about how he thought that the women's program at Northwestern was a sleeping giant.

"I'm not sure you have that anymore between most coaches," McKeown said. "I mean, you respect other coaches, but you don't have the same kind of close relationships anymore, where you know each other so well and you know each other's families, and can call on each other for help like that.

"Coaching has changed. I used to have coaches that I would go out and grab a beer with, or do lunch with. It's a different world now. It's just different now."

McKeown and Bruno, whose teams squared off against each other on Sunday in Evanston, where DePaul escaped with a 70-68 win over Northwestern, are certainly different. A different breed.

They are part of the old-school regime, coaches who came up through the ranks in the 1970s and 1980s and grew as professionals as the game of women's basketball itself was growing.

Bruno and McKeown, who came to Northwestern in part because of the highly regarded schools in the area that could help his autistic son Joey, experienced the humble beginnings and the struggles of women's college basketball. But they stuck it out.

And now, some 30 years later, McKeown and Bruno rank among the most tenured coaches in the country, and are celebrating some pretty big milestones together.

In that game on Sunday, which also was a fundraiser for Autism Awareness, Bruno's win over Northwestern marked his 700th victory at DePaul. His team is now 6-1 and ranked No. 16 in the country.

Ironically, McKeown, whose team is also 6-1, sits at 697 wins. So he is just behind his good friend, and in line to get his 700th win sometime this season.

"When Doug and I first started, it wasn't that easy. We had no budgets, no money. We drove in vans everywhere and took our players to McDonald's between games," McKeown said. "But you just felt lucky that you were coaching. And now, I think for both of us, we just want to keep it going for as long as we can."

The longevity of Bruno and McKeown is remarkable. Their continued drive is even more so, especially in this era.

While the old-school friendships and relationships between coaches seem to be, as McKeown observes, less common in this impersonal, social media-driven world, so too are the coaching lifers like Bruno and McKeown.

There are just 12 coaches in the history of Division I women's basketball who have joined the 700-win club. And with the demands on college coaches now, not to mention the higher expectations in the women's game, quick burnout and even quicker turnover is common. So, outside of McKeown's impending addition, that exclusive 700 club may not be expanding much anytime soon.

"Doug and I came up with a bunch of really great coaches who have stuck around a long time, like Geno Auriemma (Connecticut), Muffet McGraw (Notre Dame) and Gary Blair (Texas A&M)," McKeown said. "A lot of other coaches early on were like that, Pat Summitt (Tennessee), Jody Conradt (Texas). They were in the game for years and years. But I think you're seeing that's not going to be the norm, it will be the opposite. In about 10 years, maybe less, we will be the exception to the rule.

"To win consistently every year now, is hard. The bar is set high and you have a lot working against you, including social media. You see it in all sports, football, men's basketball. A coach has one bad year and everyone out there is saying you have to get a new coach. So I'm not sure how many of the younger coaches we'll see (reach significant milestones like 700 wins)."

McKeown isn't sure the camaraderie in coaching will ever be like it used to be either.

"It's too bad," McKeown said. "That was fun. You kind of miss that."

Luckily for McKeown and Bruno, they've still got each other, just a few "L" stops away, to grab a beer with.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

Northwestern women's basketball coach Joe McKeown (above) and Doug Bruno, whose teams squared off against each other on Sunday in Evanston, where DePaul escaped with a 70-68 win over Northwestern, are certainly different. A different breed. Associated Press
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