Meet the new UCLA defensive boss. Same as the old boss? Time will tell for Bill McGovern

New York Giants' Bill McGovern watches against the Detroit Lions.
New York Giants’ Bill McGovern watches against the Detroit Lions during a game in Detroit on Oct. 27, 2019.
(Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

UCLA coach Chip Kelly has moved from one longtime friend to another at defensive coordinator, hiring veteran assistant Bill McGovern to replace Jerry Azzinaro.

The parallels between McGovern and his predecessor are striking. Both came to UCLA late in their careers. Both have known Kelly for decades. Both experienced gaps of at least a decade between roles as defensive coordinators.

McGovern, who will turn 60 on New Year’s Eve, most recently held that title from 2009 to 2012 while at Boston College. His Eagles rose from No. 26 nationally in total defense during his first season to No. 13 in 2010 before taking a tumble, ranking No. 70 in 2011 and No. 100 in 2012.


After working last season as the inside linebackers coach for the Chicago Bears, McGovern needed a job after being part of the staff let go in January when the Bears fired coach Matt Nagy.

Kelly and McGovern have known each other for decades. They first met as rival players while in college, Kelly at New Hampshire and McGovern at Holy Cross, and continued to cross paths as coaches at the Football Championship Subdivision level before Kelly eventually hired McGovern as his outside linebackers coach with the Philadelphia Eagles.

“In this profession, you tend to stay close to certain people, you tend to hit it off with them and stay close over the years,” McGovern said during a 2013 interview after being hired as part of Kelly’s first NFL staff, which also included Azzinaro as the defensive line coach.

McGovern had also coached alongside Azzinaro in 1993 at Massachusetts, where McGovern was the defensive coordinator and Azzinaro the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator. The following season, Azzinaro succeeded McGovern as defensive coordinator when McGovern became defensive backs coach in his first stint at Boston College. The duo was reunited in Chestnut Hill during the 1995 and ’96 seasons when Azzinaro arrived to coach the defensive line.

The National College Players Assn. is asking the National Labor Relations Board to classify UCLA and USC athletes as university employees.

Stylistically, McGovern is known to favor having linebackers essentially serve as part of the defensive line to increase pressure and fill gaps in coverage. He has worked in a variety of roles at the FCS, Football Bowl Subdivision and NFL levels as part of a coaching career that has spanned 37 seasons.

McGovern’s arrival at UCLA will give him a chance to revive a defense that struggled under Azzinaro. The Bruins gave up 26.8 points per game last season, ranking No. 74 nationally — and that was an improvement over defenses that had given up 30.7 points in 2020, 34.8 points in 2019 and 34.1 points in 2018.

Kelly and McGovern last worked together in 2015. After Kelly’s Eagles staff was dismissed after that season, McGovern became a linebackers coach for the New York Giants for four seasons. He spent the 2020 season as a defensive analyst at Nebraska under Scott Frost, another close friend of Kelly.

A star defensive back at Holy Cross who led the FCS level with 11 interceptions as an All-American in 1984, McGovern began his coaching career the following year as the freshman coach at Pennsylvania. His longest uninterrupted coaching stint covered 12 consecutive years at Boston College, where he rose from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator.

After being replaced in that role by Don Brown before the 2013 season, McGovern was expected to stay on the Boston College staff as a linebackers coach before Kelly hired McGovern to join him in Philadelphia.

While at Boston College, McGovern mentored linebackers Mark Herzlich and Luke Kuechly, who became Atlantic Coast Conference defensive players of the year.

McGovern will inherit a UCLA defense that is losing some of its top players. Lineman Otito Ogbonnia is headed to the NFL, striker Qwuantrezz Knight exhausted his eligibility and nine players — including top edge rusher Mitchell Agude and lockdown cornerback Jay Shaw — entered the transfer portal.

But the Bruins are bringing back veteran linebacker Caleb Johnson and promising cornerback Devin Kirkwood, among others, while importing a handful of possible impact transfers, including cornerback Azizi Hearn and edge rusher Laiatu Latu. UCLA also remains in the running for several other transfers who could bolster the defense and ease McGovern’s transition back to the college level.