Brian Kelly is just the latest Cincinnati coach to have success and then move on. From Sid Gillman to Tony Mason to Tim Murphy, the story has pretty much always been the same.
Bearcats' fans had hoped this time would be different. After all, the program was now in the Big East, and Kelly had proven that you could compete for the national championship at Cincinnati. His two straight trips to the BCS -- including this year's 12-0 record -- showed that you could chart a path to the big time from what was once a small-potatoes program. Bearcats' fans thought maybe Kelly would want to stick around and be their Joe Paterno or Frank Beamer, someone who could build from the ground up and see it through the rest of his career.
In reality, though, Kelly always had one foot out the door. After his first season in Cincinnati, he tried for the Michigan job. Last year, he interviewed with both Tennessee and Washington before the Orange Bowl. Finally, his dream job arrived when Notre Dame came calling, and Kelly badly wanted to move to South Bend.
And you can't really blame Kelly. First of all, he gave the Bearcats their three best years ever, winning 10, 11 and then 12 games and claiming two Big East titles. But Cincinnati doesn't have the resources to match the size of Kelly's vision. This is an athletic program mired in debt, which missed a deadline to build practice fields that were a stipulation in Kelly's contract. The fields should be done by next year, but it took a lot of work to raise the necessary money, and Kelly's teams had to practice in Nippert Stadium -- with the offense and defense splitting up the field between them -- during his first three years.
And speaking of Nippert, there's no getting around the fact that the Bearcats have a 35,000-seat stadium that, while charming, lacks luxury boxes or other revenue-generating avenues. And while the school is studying ways to expand the stadium, there's no obvious way to turn it into a major Division I facility because of its setting in the heart of campus.
Despite these limitations, there's no reason why Cincinnati can't continue to contend in the Big East. Kelly proved that you can build a winning program by recruiting southern Ohio and taking players that Ohio State didn't want. The challenge will be to find someone who can develop that talent the way Kelly could, and who can provide an exciting product that's necessary to gain notice in a pro town.
Athletic director Mike Thomas can choose to go two ways when looking to replace Kelly. He can keep the continuity going by hiring one of Kelly's assistants, such as offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn -- who will coach the team in the Allstate Sugar Bowl -- or associate coach and former highly successful local high school coach Kerry Coombs. Or Thomas can try to find the next up-and-coming guy like Kelly, perhaps turning to Butch Jones at Central Michigan -- the same school where he found Kelly -- or perhaps East Carolina's Skip Holtz.
A guy like Quinn, who's wanted a chance to be a head coach, or a local like Coombs might stick around for a long time. But that's less important than finding another coach who can win at a high level. While Kelly followed the program's history by bolting after a few seasons, Bearcats' fans shouldn't have any regrets about his incredibly successful tenure.