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June 12, 2013

A look at the Meyer-Belichick connection

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod |

During his less-than-enthusiastic press conference on Tuesday, when he dolled out insightful answers ranging from "I don't know" to "I think I've covered that," Bill Belichick stated a simple "no" when asked if he consulted Ohio State coach Urban Meyer before signing Tim Tebow to the New England Patriots roster. While that may be the case, or simply coach-speak, it's hard to imagine that Belichick's relationship with Meyer -- who coached Tebow at Florida from 2006-2009 -- didn't play a role in the Patriots' latest free agent acquisition.

"Whatever conversations I have with anybody would be between myself and that person anyways," Belichick expanded. "I don't think that's anything that would be shared publicly."

The personal bond between two of the most successful football coaches of the past decade began in 2005, when Meyer and Belichick began exchanging visits to each other's practice sessions in an effort to learn from one another. The connection between the two, however, dates as far back as 2002, when the Patriots selected Notre Dame wide receiver David Givens in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.

By that point in time, Meyer had already began his head coaching career at Bowling Green, but it was the versatile Givens who was one of his top players when he served as the Fighting Irish's wide receivers coach from 1996-2000. New England's gamble on Givens proved to pay off, as he went on to enjoy a four-year career with the Patriots that saw him start in a total of 17 games and catch 90 balls and nine touchdowns during the team's Super Bowl-winning seasons of 2003 and 2004.

Givens successful stint with the Patriots was just a sign of things to come when it came to Meyer-coached players on a Belichick roster. After the three-time Super Bowl-winning head coach's first visit to see Meyer in Gainesville in 2005, New England selected a pair of Gators in the 2006 draft, including wide receiver Chad Jackson and defensive end Jeremy Mincey.

Jackson, a second round pick, spent just two seasons with the Patriots and three total in the NFL, tallying 13 receptions, 156 yards, and three touchdowns in his rookie year. Mincey, on the other hand, didn't even make the Patriots' opening day roster in 2006, but has developed into a starting defensive end for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The unremarkable careers of Jackson and Mincey didn't scare Belichick in 2010, when he again went Gator-heavy in the annual draft. With Florida fresh off of a run that saw Meyer win two national championships (2006, 2008) and compile a 48-7 record in four seasons, the Patriots took advantage of a talented Gators roster by selecting linebackers Jeremy Cunningham and Brandon Spikes in the second round, and tight end Aaron Hernandez in the draft's fourth round.

According to Belichick, the talent that Meyer put on display at Florida's 2010 Pro Day was unlike any collection that he's ever seen.

"I felt like we were working out half of the first and second round," Belichick said. "Those kids are very focused on football. Football's important to them. They're in a good program. It's important for them to win. They know what they are doing."

All three Gators drafted by the Patriots in 2010 still remain on the New England roster, where they are now joined by Tebow, a three-year starter for Meyer at Florida and the 2007 winner of the Heisman Trophy.

Entering his fourth season in the NFL, Tebow is in the midst of a polarizing career that has seen him compile a 9-7 record -- including a playoff victory -- as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos, before being traded to the New York Jets in 2012. Tebow was seldom used during his lone season in New York, and was ultimately released by the team on April 29.

Despite a career passer rating of 75.3 and a winning record as a starter, Tebow sat unemployed for more than a month, with some believing that the media circus that he brings with him would prevent him from getting another job as a quarterback in the NFL. Those thoughts, however, proved to be wrong on Tuesday, although Belichick remained relatively mum when repeatedly asked about his decision to sign Tebow.

"Tim is a talented player that is smart and works hard. We'll see how it goes," Belichick said.

While insight was hard to come by in Foxborough, Mass. on Tuesday, Tebow stated in 2009 that he had developed a relationship with the Patriots head coach, one that came as a result of Belichick's alliance with Meyer.

"Anytime I can talk with him and get advice from him and ask him as many questions as I could, I do," Tebow told The New York Times. "He's just someone that I respect a lot. He was someone I really wanted to talk to and Coach Meyer felt comfortable with me talking to him."

In addition to acquiring some of his top players, Belichick has also taken some schematic ideas like single-back sets from Meyer and added them to his offense. But the relationship between the two is far from one-sided.

While Belichick studied players and plays in Gainesville, Meyer observed the making of a winning culture during his visits to New England. The Patriot-like approach that Meyer has learned is made apparent by a sign that hangs in Ohio State's Woody Hayes Athletic Center, which reads: "When do you know your team is ready? When everyone knows what they are doing and why they are doing it." - Bill Belichick.

Another New England-Ohio State connection exists in Buckeyes defensive line coach Mike Vrabel. When asked upon his arrival in Columbus if he would retain Vrabel, who played for Belichick for eight seasons from 2001-2008, Meyer admitted that he would seek out Belichick's thoughts.

"I'm a big Vrabel fan. I don't know him as a coach," during his introductory press conference at OSU in 2011. "He played for a great friend of mine.I'll eventually reach out to Coach Belichick when it's time."

Meyer ultimately kept Vrabel on staff, where he is entering his third season as a Buckeyes assistant coach.

As for Tebow, we may never know whether or not Belichick ever did reach out to his former college coach in the days leading up to his signing. And although the New England head coach may not have been willing to disclose his reasoning behind signing the league's most popular backup quarterback, Meyer has already shed some light on what the nature of a hypothetical conversation between himself and Belichick would have been.

"What I admire about him more than most is that it's always about getting better," Meyer said of Belichick in 2009. "Whether it's an offensive play or team chemistry or special teams. Our conversations are about that."

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