UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern is back for Sun Bowl after health issues

UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern
UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern, who missed the last five games with “health problems,” is set to return against Pittsburgh in the Sun Bowl.
(Don Liebig / UCLA Athletics)

Watching games on television can be hard work for a veteran defensive coordinator used to howling instructions from the press box.

Old habits must be put to rest. A voice must be lowered. One’s surroundings must be recognized to preserve the sanity of everyone within earshot.

“Not good, not good,” Bill McGovern said of his adjustment to watching UCLA from afar the last five games. “When you coach for 37 years and all of a sudden you think you have a headset on at home but you don’t, you know? So you might be yelling at somebody in your house rather than somebody on the other end of the line.”


For the first time in more than two months, McGovern’s familiar, raspy voice will be heard on coaches’ headsets.

He’s back.

The assistant who had missed nearly half the season with what he described Tuesday as “health problems” is set to make his return when the No. 18 Bruins (9-3) face Pittsburgh (8-4) in the Sun Bowl on Friday.

“I’m thrilled to be back and honestly, one of the things that gave me the most energy was being back around the kids and being back in the offices and working and trying to game-plan and do all those things,” McGovern said. “I thought it was really exciting just to be out with the guys running around.”

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Dec. 29, 2022

During the brief portion of practice at a local high school open to reporters Tuesday, McGovern observed special teams work, individual position drills and an impromptu dance routine when cornerback Devin Kirkwood bopped to a hip-hop song. Later, at a media event, McGovern thanked friends and family for their support during his absence and said “not a second went by” when he didn’t think about football.

McGovern, who will turn 60 on New Year’s Eve, declined to elaborate on his health issues but did not hesitate when asked if he expected to fulfill the final year on his two-year, $1.8-million contract in 2023.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Showing off his usual self-deprecating humor, McGovern picked up where he left off in speaking to the media, even breaking some news when he confirmed that quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson would participate in UCLA’s first bowl appearance since the 2017 Cactus Bowl.


“We’re looking forward to him playing in the game. He’s excited about it. He’s been running around, he was throwing passes today and everything,” McGovern said. “We’re excited to have him back out on the field again one more time.”

UCLA defensive coordinator Bill McGovern
(Sam Lazarus / UCLA Athletics)

Down at least standout receiver-running back Kazmeir Allen, who will miss the game with an apparent injury at a time when he’s preparing for the NFL draft, UCLA coach Chip Kelly welcomed having a fully intact staff upon McGovern’s return.

“He’s coached in a lot of big games, he’s coached in the NFL for a long time,” said Kelly, who also worked alongside McGovern with the Philadelphia Eagles, “so to have another voice like that back on the defensive side of the ball is a huge positive for us.”

The Bruins’ defense experienced a notable downturn during McGovern’s absence, giving up an average of 31.8 points over the final five games as opposed to 25.9 points with McGovern presiding over the defense. Analyst Clancy Pendergast took McGovern’s spot in the press box, with the play-calling a collaborative effort among all the defensive assistants. McGovern said his replacements did a “phenomenal job” sustaining players’ effort.

“The biggest thing was just the guys were playing hard in the fourth quarter, they were chasing the ball around, they were making some plays,” McGovern said.

UCLA’s bowl preparations have been complicated by Pitt’s radically shifting personnel. Among others, the Panthers will be without quarterback Kedon Slovis (transferred to Brigham Young), All-American defensive tackle Calijah Kancey (shoulder injury) and first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference running back Israel Abanikanda and first-team All-ACC middle linebacker SirVocea Dennis (opted out to prepare for the NFL draft).

Check out which players are leaving and which are joining the UCLA and USC football program via the transfer portal.

Jan. 23, 2023

The Panthers might have been down three more players except for some Christmas goodwill. Stranded at a Dallas airport, Texas El Paso basketball coach Joe Golding spotted Pitt defensive back Hudson Primus, defensive lineman Samuel Okunlola and quarterback Jake Frantl in a similar predicament and offered a nine-hour ride across the state in a rental car alongside Golding’s wife and two children.

The Bruins’ defensive game plan will likely revolve around stopping backup quarterback Nick Patti, a redshirt senior who has thrown only 20 passes this season, and running back Rodney Hammond Jr., a sophomore who has rushed for 366 yards and three touchdowns while averaging 4.4 yards per carry.

“You have to worry about the guys that are going to be on the field,” McGovern said, “and that’s what we’re excited about.”

Back in the press box, loud as ever, the old defensive coordinator has given his team another reason to be thrilled.