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MICHAEL HOLLEY

A clean slate for understudy

FOXBOROUGH -- The number is significant, even if it won't put Bill Belichick into the Hall of Fame.

.500.

It's not the kind of number you proudly place on your nametag, especially if you happen to be in the same room as Chuck Noll or Don Shula. But .500 does mean that you no longer have to look up at the world. You're out of debt, out of the hole, capable of thinking about new beginnings and fresh dreams.

Belichick woke up to that coaching world this morning (if he even slept at all). His Patriots played Bill Parcells's Cowboys last night at Gillette Stadium. The team walked away with a 12-0 win. The coach left with his career record at sea level, hooking the only Tuna obstacle that was in his way.

Sports have a way of merging irony and poetry, and the latest meeting of the Bills was no exception.

Nearly four years ago, Belichick decided that his professional life would be better without Parcells in it. Parcells tended to agree, and a great divide was born. Now it's as if some Shakespearean scriptwriter has come up with the most dramatic route to a simple number. According to the juicy script, Belichick had to topple Parcells before we could start calling him -- at the very least -- a coach who wins as much as he loses.

How fitting is it that he became that coach on a night when the other guys couldn't score? He made his reputation as a defensive coach, an economics graduate who was always creative with the numbers. He knew how to take 11 defensive guys and position them in unusual ways.

That was then. These days, Romeo Crennel makes the defensive calls. Belichick has grown beyond his specialist label. He's a whole coach.

"I wish I had known this win got him to .500," tight end Christian Fauria said. "I would have poured Gatorade over his head or something. But you know what? You'll never hear about that from him. He's focused on the larger picture."

At 8-2, the Patriots lead the AFC East. They are confident they can do better because they know they haven't played their most sound football yet. They also believe that the weekly game plans give them the best chance to win.

"I'm telling you, we are winning the way our game plans say we're going to win," Fauria said.

Considering how Belichick's first job unfolded, it's amazing that he's being praised like this today.

In 1991, Belichick returned to his father's home state and became head coach of the Cleveland Browns. Ohio is where Belichick's parents met. Ohio is where one of the game's greatest innovators, Paul Brown, taught men such as Noll, Lou Groza, Marion Motley and Otto Graham.

Unfortunately for Belichick, it was also the home of a bad and old football team. There was a reason the Browns had an opening: They were 3-13 in 1990. A few days into camp with his new team, Belichick called his father, Steve. It was not so much a father-son conversation as much as it was a heart to heart between two coaches (Steve Belichick, the man who taught his son the game, was an assistant at Navy for three decades).

"Dad, we're a bad team," the son told the father. "I mean, we're really bad. We don't do a lot of things well. It's a lot worse than I thought."

They were bad enough to drag a head coach to a place that no head coach wants to go. Into the hole. Belichick didn't win his first three years in Cleveland, and he didn't draft well, either. He wasn't very good at delegating. He didn't know how to play the games that a lot of pro coaches know how to play; he didn't know how to drop nuggets to the media and still keep them at a safe distance from his team.

He won his fourth year in Cleveland, but he didn't have a lot of public support. It once got so bad and hostile that police cars were stationed near Belichick's suburban home, just in case some "fans" got a few ideas. A few times, his children went to school and heard rude comments about their father.

After his fifth season, he was gone. Six weeks after the 1995 season ended, Modell finally decided to fire Belichick. The Browns were going to Baltimore, where Belichick got his start in the NFL. The new Browns -- the Baltimore Ravens -- were going to be coached by the man who a young Belichick used to drive to work.

As a fresh-faced Colt assistant, Belichick was a gofer for Ted Marchibroda. He was a kid chauffeur, breakfast partner, and courier who picked up game films. He was a listener, too. He learned early how rough the business could be. He knew it could be particularly tough on men with records like his in Cleveland.

It is a new life now.

"He's nothing like the man I heard about in Cleveland," Mike Vrabel, an Ohio native and Patriots linebacker, said last night. "I don't know if it was media perception or what. But he's not like that. I think he's a fun coach to play for."

Belichick has learned how to be a football team's CEO. He's the boss now, and he understands that the boss isn't required to grapple with the minutiae.

He has put his scouting department in the hands of Scott Pioli, who was a kid making $14,000 a year and living in Section 8 housing in Belichick's second season in Cleveland. Pioli now is a well-paid vice president who has already found two Pro Bowlers (Tom Brady and Richard Seymour) for the CEO in the headset.

No one could have guessed that Belichick would return like this. They couldn't have guessed that he would one day hold a Lombardi Trophy above his head. Or that the police cars surrounding him would be police escorts, leading him to a parade in downtown Boston. Or that he would be praised for his mind, his ideas, and even his tough decisions.

As he walked off the field last night, Parcells met him at midfield and hugged him. Belichick then congratulated his players and coaches.

No one would have guessed that on a Sunday night in New England, he would leave with a 12-0 win and an entirely new coaching life.

Michael Holley is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is holley@globe.com.

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