Bill McGovern, UCLA football defensive coordinator battling cancer, dies at 60

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — Even after his health deteriorated, sidelining him for nearly half a season, Bill McGovern yearned to stay around the players who rejuvenated him and the game that had been a lifelong love.

He returned from a five-game absence to coach UCLA’s defense in the Sun Bowl last December, eagerly announcing that he “absolutely” expected to be the Bruins’ defensive coordinator in 2023. When McGovern’s health issues forced him into a less demanding role as director of football administration, he remained a regular at spring practices, his presence a symbol of perseverance.

On Tuesday, having fought an undisclosed form of cancer to the very end, McGovern succumbed while surrounded by family at his Southern California home. He was 60.

“It was the honor of Bill’s coaching career to be the defensive coordinator for the UCLA Bruins, and this past season was one of the highlights of Bill’s coaching career,” McGovern’s family said in a statement. “We are so thankful for the opportunity to be a part of such a historic athletic tradition and, more importantly, we could not have made it through this past year without the love and prayers of our UCLA family.”

Beloved for his self-deprecating humor and deep knowledge of the game, McGovern immediately connected with players a fraction of his age during his one season as the Bruins’ defensive coordinator.

“He just lets me be me,” cornerback Devin Kirkwood said in August. “He’s just helped me express my game in ways I wasn’t able to do last year, so now when I demonstrate it, it just looks like poetry.”

McGovern’s time at UCLA was the final destination in a lengthy coaching career that included a stint as Boston College’s defensive coordinator and several stops in the NFL. A longtime acquaintance of UCLA coach Chip Kelly, the duo first connected when McGovern worked as Kelly’s outside linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2013-15 before taking similar jobs with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears.

Intrigued by McGovern’s NFL experience and understanding of advanced pass defense concepts, Kelly hired him in February 2022 to replace Jerry Azzinaro with hopes of reviving a defense that had been abysmal since Kelly’s arrival in Westwood.

The early returns were promising. McGovern presided over a defense that gave up 25.9 points over seven games, helping the Bruins go 6-1 while rising as high as No. 9 in the national rankings.

His absence over the final five games of the regular season coincided with significant backsliding, UCLA giving up an average of 31.8 points per game. That regression continued upon McGovern’s return, the Bruins surrendering 20 unanswered points during a 37-35 loss to Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.

Two months later, McGovern agreed to move into the administrative role when UCLA hired D’Anton Lynn as his replacement at defensive coordinator.

A star defensive back at Holy Cross who set a Division I-AA single-season record with 11 interceptions as a senior in 1984, McGovern commenced his coaching career in 1985 as Penn’s freshman coach. His greatest success came during a 13-year run at Boston College, where he rose from defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator.

The Eagles qualified for a bowl game in each of his first 11 seasons at the school, and he assembled a unit that rose as high as No. 13 in the nation in total defense in 2010 before experiencing a precipitous decline over his last two seasons. Along the way, McGovern coached two Atlantic Coast Conference defensive players of the year in Mark Herzlich (2008) and Luke Kuechly (2011) while developing a reputation for meticulous preparation.

“I had 12 interceptions throughout my career, which is almost unheard of for a linebacker,” Herzlich, who also spent two seasons playing for McGovern in the NFL with the Giants, told The Los Angeles Times in August, “but that’s because we knew what the other team was going to do.”

McGovern is survived by his wife, Colleen, and daughters Amanda, Delainey and Mackenzie. Services are pending.