Bill McGovern’s top defender looked a little worse, with his black eye smeared like a WWF wrestler.
He would pace the sideline before every game. He would stare across the field at the player he was trying to destroy.
The menace on his face was unmistakable.
“That’s what I was,” Mark Herzlich recalled this week, more than a decade after the linebacker terrorized quarterbacks and running backs alike under McGovern at Boston College. “It’s weird and a little sad but Bill was like, ‘Hey, this is what Mark puts up.'”
Pulling his star aside before the 2008 season opener, McGovern delivered an even bigger jolt.
“He said, ‘Mark, you’re the best player on the pitch right now. Play it like it is,’” said Herzlich, who would go on to be the Atlantic Coast Conference’s defensive player of the year. “I reminded myself that’s what Bill told me and whether every game was true or not, I felt it was true because my coach believed it was true.”
For the past month, UCLA’s new defensive coordinator has been up to his old brain tricks. His message to the Bruins sounds more like something out of a psychologist’s manual than a coach’s playbook.
“He lets me be me,” said Devin Kirkwood, a trash-talking Bruins goaltender who tries to humor everyone but the referees. “It helped me express my game in ways I couldn’t last year, so now when I show it, it’s like poetry.”
McGovern finds himself in Westwood because UCLA’s defense is largely the same since coach Chip Kelly arrived in 2018. When the Bruins gave up 26.8 points per game last season, ranking No. 74 nationally, he qualified as something of an advance compared to their defenses. had given up 30 or more points in each of the previous three seasons under Jerry Azzinaro.
Kelly then traded one old friend for another, and hired McGovern to replace Azzinaro even though some might think their backgrounds are nearly identical. Both had strong ties to New England and Kelly. Both worked at the NFL and college level, including three stops on the same team. The two were at least a decade apart from stints as defensive coordinators.
One major difference became apparent in March when McGovern agreed to a round of interviews with local beat writers. By the time he uttered his first words, he had said more in public than his famously quiet predecessor in four years in office.
A northern New Jersey native who has spent 37 years coaching in the Northeast and Midwest, McGovern revealed a sense of self-deprecation when asked if this was his first time living in Southern California.
“Oh, yes, you haven’t seen my white legs yet,” he hummed. “No one wants to see me down there at the beach or at the pool.”
McGovern also revealed that he knew Kelly since they played football at New England colleges in the 1980s, McGovern an All-American defensive back at Holy Cross and Kelly a backup at New Hampshire. As they began their coaching careers, they continued to cross paths at camps and recruiting.
Those paths finally merged in 2013 when Kelly McGovern was hired to be the outside linebacker coach with the Philadelphia Eagles. They parted ways after Kelly resigned near the end of the 2015 season, McGovern serving as the linebackers coach with the New York Giants and Chicago Bears until he was let go as part of another staff shakeup in January.
The second term of Kelly-McGovern continued, Kelly saying that he was interested in the concepts of the NFL and a new coach from the inside Ken Norton Jr. could. used to bolster his team’s weakened pass defense.
“Obviously, I think we’ve done a pretty good job against the run,” said Kelly, who made McGovern his highest-paid assistant at $900,000 a year, “but we’ve got to do a better job of pass protection. “
McGovern’s four-year run as Boston College’s defensive coordinator from 2009 to 2012 began with many stops. His Eagle rose from No. 26 nationally in total defense during McGovern’s first season in that role to No. 13 in 2010. But things quickly deteriorated, the Eagles ranked No. 70 in 2011 and No. 100 in 2012.
One of McGovern’s favorite sayings was that his players didn’t have to leave Chestnut Hill as coaches, but they should be able to bring all the hours they spent in the film room. Players learned not only formations but also the top three things opposing teams liked to do so there were rarely any surprises.
“I had 12 interceptions in my career, which is almost unheard of for a linebacker,” said Herzlich, who also spent two seasons playing for McGovern in the NFL with the Giants, “but that’s because we knew what the other team was going. do.”
The mindset among defensive players after a three-and-out, Herzlich said, was not that they had to get back on the field but that they got because it gave them another chance to meet someone. McGovern preached toughness and playing within the rules … since those rules sometimes did him a favor by allowing them to touch receivers after five yards.
“We’ve always been a substitute where you can hit a wide receiver on a crossing route or if you can legally hit a guy,” Herzlich said, “that’s the easiest way to cover him, so we were very physical , we were very physical. very aggressive.”
Every year during spring practice, when he felt the time was right, McGovern would make a show of ripping players to rekindle their rivalry. Writing their names on a board, he would tick off the shortcomings of everyone in the room.
“It would be like, ‘This guy’s hurt, you’re not producing, you’re not doing this, we’ve got to pick him up!'” Herzlich said.
McGovern also revealed a more tender side to players who consider him family. Some say he is like an uncle. Others compare him to a father, Herzlich noting the way McGovern always checked on him and kept his parents up to date as Herzlich underwent chemotherapy for bone cancer after returning to campus in his senior year.
Since McGovern will turn 61 on New Year’s Eve, it might be more accurate to call him a grandfather figure.
UCLA fans won’t care if he’s famous as the Dalai Lama if he can’t revitalize the team’s defense. McGovern was just as tight-lipped as his predecessor about what that defense would look like, saying it would be different. He knows he favors linebackers essentially operating as part of the defensive line to increase pressure and fill gaps in coverage.
“You want to bring a different look, a different presentation,” McGovern said, “things will hopefully work to your advantage and create some issues on the other side of the ball.”
It might not be that big of a deal when he returns to the college game after a decade away — except for a stint as a defensive analyst at Nebraska in 2020 — since many offenses use NFL the same concepts of read option, spread and run option. who have conquered college football. It should help that the Bruins have plenty of play between Kirkwood, linebacker Darius Muasau and two edge rushers Grayson and Gabriel Murphy.
There has been an emphasis on forcing turnovers since spring practice, and defenders are constantly being taught to get off the ball and react immediately to passes thrown in their vicinity. Along the way, McGovern has injected his father with jokes, saying that the fallen players were hit by a sniper or victims of the “Turf Monster”.
How would McGovern describe his sense of humor?
“Missing,” he cried.
The Bruins’ defense may finally have everything it needs thanks to the man who makes players feel his love before his anger, allowing them to have the final say on the field.
“Every time I go out there,” Kirkwood says, “he’s banking on me, he’s put his money down on me, and I’ve put my money down on him.”