When the Patriots' Bill Belichick has a coaching problem -- and he hasn't had many in recent years -- he turns to an unlikely source for advice and guidance.

Not someone like Bill Parcells, his former boss with three NFL franchises.

Not Romeo Crennel or Charlie Weis, the coordinators who worked for him on New England's three Super Bowl championship teams.

Not anyone with NFL ties, in fact.

No, as Belichick steams toward a fourth Super Bowl title, which would match Pittsburgh's Hall of Fame coach, Chuck Noll, his closest coaching confidante appears to be the University of Florida's Urban Meyer, a man with whom Belichick never has worked, but with whom he has nonetheless developed an extremely close relationship.

Bonds of greatness

Patriots coach Bill Belichick and University of Florida coach Urban Meyer have become fast friends in recent years. Each is among the best in his profession at the pro and college level:

Bill Belichick (in N.E.)
Experience: 8 years
Total record: 105-39
Reg. season: 91-37
Postseason: 14-2

Urban Meyer (in Florida)
Experience: 3 years
Total record: 31-8
Reg. season: 29-7
Postseason: 2-1

They have watched each other's team practice. They have addressed each other's team in a meeting. They have exchanged strategies and philosophies. They trust each other's instincts. They are, in effect, a mutual admiration society.

"For him to watch us practice, watch me for a day or a day and a half, and to be able to say something as an outsider (is valuable)," Belichick said in a recent interview. "Frankly, he's had a chance to observe a lot more pro (teams) practice than I have. I only see this organization.

"I don't know how many pro teams he has seen practice, five or 10, but he has a viewpoint on what we're doing, and whatever his thoughts are, I think the team is very receptive to hearing them."

Belichick now makes an annual, offseason pilgrimage to Gainesville; he's also friends with Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan, who played college basketball in New England, at Providence.

Most significantly, Belichick has soaked up and incorporated elements of Meyer's spread offense. Meyer, however, is quick to tell you that it isn't really his offense, anyway, that, "Most of my ideas are ones that I have borrowed from someone else," adding, "The whole concept of the spread offense started from visiting other great offensive minds."

Said Belichick: "Sometimes, I bounce stuff off him. Sometimes, he bounces stuff off me. I value his opinion and advice when he gives it to me. I appreciate it."

Their alliance has grown since that day in March 2005 when Belichick, fresh off Super Bowl victory No. 3, picked up the phone and called Meyer, who had just arrived in Gainesville after his Utah team became the first non-BCS school to earn its way into a BCS bowl game, then scored a crushing victory over Pitt.

Although the two had mutual friends in coaching and ties to Ohio -- Meyer was born and began his coaching career there; Belichick's family has roots in Ohio, and Belichick coached the Browns in the '90s -- Meyer had to be convinced it was really Belichick on the line.

"Since I didn't have a relationship with him, I thought my assistant, Nancy, was pulling my leg," Meyer said. "My relationship began when he called her and asked if he could meet with me. I was out of the office and hurried back to meet him."

At the time, Meyer had some draft-eligible players Belichick wanted to check out. But Belichick also was interested in Meyer's offense.

"I went down there (to Gainesville), and it was good for me," Belichick said. "The offense he runs is very ... I won't say it's a pro-style offense, but it's an open offense that has a lot of pro elements to it.

"From what I know about Urban, he runs a program similar to the way we run our program, so we talked about lots of things relative to technical football, Xs and Os, how to deal with different stuff that's common (to both pro and college football)."

Coaches are always looking for an edge, but Belichick is unusual in his openness to ideas, even as he has scaled the pinnacle of his profession. His willingness to share ideas is business as usual for, say, Meyer, because college coaches always are visiting with each other -- but it is far off the charts in the paranoid NFL.

Meyer's staff entertained Ohio State coaches in the summer before Florida and Ohio State wound up playing each other in the BCS championship game. Joe Paterno sent some Penn State coaches to Austin to study Vince Young and the Texas offense, and that helped win the Big Ten title two years ago. When he was at Alabama, the late Bear Bryant learned the option offense in a visit to Texas.

The son of a former coach who spent 33 years on the staff at Navy, Belichick has been around football his whole life, and he always has tried to keep close watch on what other coaches do (no Spygate jokes, please). He has an inquisitive mind, and he's an avid reader. As a young coach, he learned from Ted Marchibroda in Baltimore, near where he grew up in Annapolis. As the Patriots' boss, he picked former Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson's brain about stockpiling draft picks and, in recent years, spent time studying Navy's running game. He even picked up some tips on leadership from baseball's Tony LaRussa.

"He is always looking for ways to improve," Meyer said.

Not surprisingly, Belichick and Meyer were reluctant to discuss intricate details of what they talk about. But Meyer described himself as "honored" when Belichick allowed him to speak to the Patriots at mini-camp, and he said Belichick had a "very powerful message" speaking to the Florida players after they won the national championship in the 2006 season.

"I thought it would be good for our players to hear from him about sustaining success," Meyer said.

It's clear that one way the Patriots have sustained their success is Belichick's ablity to incorporate elements of Meyer's spread offense. Not the quarterback running, that won't happen, but similarities have appeared in the passing game.

One clear result is the significant improvement of New England's offense. Certainly, we can't discount the maturing of quarterback Tom Brady, but Belichick has allowed Brady to flourish by opening up the offense.

In the 2001 season, when New England won its first Super Bowl, the Patriots ranked 22nd in the league in passing offense and 19th in total offense. By 2004, when the Patriots won the Super Bowl for the third time and Brady had established himself, their passing offense had improved to 11th and their total offense had risen to seventh. A year later, after the first exchange of ideas between Belichick and Meyer, New England was No. 2 in passing. And this year, the Patriots ranked first both in passing (295.7 yards a game) and total offense (411.3). Both of those figures are more than 100 yards a game ahead of New England's 2001 team.

"The No. 1 thing, from a football sense, I think we see a lot of things the same way," Belichick said. "The basic philosophy of coaching, both on a fundamental level and a more technical strategic level, I think, are similar.

"Probably a lot of things I believe in have been reinforced, because I respect (Meyer). Sometimes, you question if you're on the right track or not and therefore, when your philosophies are kind of the same, I think it's easy to be open-minded to a new idea. 'Hey this is how we do it,' or 'You might think about trying it this way.' Our programs are similar, at least in direction or philosophy, so there's probably some applications to (Meyer's) kind of ideas."

From his standpoint, Meyer said, the No. 1 bit of wisdom he has gleaned from Belichick was simply, "to be thorough in your preparation."

Second-year wide receiver Chad Jackson, the only Patriots' player who also played for Meyer in college, said in a 2006 interview with ESPN that watching Belichick and Meyer together at a New England practice, "It was like they were best friends."

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"They were always talking," Jackson said. "We were over there running plays or something like that (and) coach Belichick's not even paying attention. They were over there catching up on things. I could see that they're real good friends and they have a real good relationship."

Not all coaches are so open to outside ideas. The late Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, who created the San Francisco 49ers' dynasty in the '80s, used to complain that Steve Mariucci, who coached the 49ers for a half-dozen seasons beginning in 1997, never leaned on him for advice, even when Walsh was the team's general manager.

"I could help him, you know," Walsh frequently used to say.

But it never bothers Belichick to learn from others.

"Bill is always looking to find out new stuff, and he doesn't care (where it comes from), and I admire it," said Jim Fassel, the former Giants' coach. "That's the unique thing about Bill, because you can't in this profession let your ego get in the way ... all you want to do is to do things that make you win."

Even today, given his accomplishments -- three Super Bowl titles, perhaps a fourth on the way, the first 16-0 season in NFL history -- Belichick never would try to convince anyone that his way was the only way. He knows better.

"The Woody Hayeses and Bo Schembechlers of this world were great coaches," Belichick said. "Certain coaches are set in their ways. They're going to do it a certain way. There's other people who are maybe more open to change, more receptive.

"I don't think there's necessarily right or wrong. There's a lot of different flavors in that freezer, a lot of different ways to do it. I think you do what you believe in and are comfortable with. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a way and doing it. I don't think there anything wrong with having different ways. I think there's a place for both.

"It's great to get that perspective (from Meyer). That's why I love it when he comes up to practice. I think that's great. Nobody from the Detroit Lions is going to come in here and help us. It doesn't work that way."

Veteran NFL writer Ira Miller is a regular contributor to NFL.com.

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