For Kelly, it's a matter of the heart

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You never win at a place like the University of Cincinnati. Not entirely.

You can get your Andy Warhol 15 minutes worth. The Bearcats are getting theirs, right now. They'll play Florida New Year's night, in the Sugar Bowl. Toss that sentence around in your imagination, and see if it ever sounds reasonable.

Brian Kelly took Cincinnati football where it never had been: An unbeaten regular season, a No. 3 ranking in the final BCS standings, a bowl game against a traditional national superstar. There was a price for the ride. At places like Cincinnati, there always is.

The bill came due at about 5:30 Thursday afternoon, when the South Bend (Ind.) Tribune broke the news that had been hovering for weeks: Kelly would be the next football coach at Notre Dame.

It wasn't much of a surprise. A guy of Kelly's talents, ambitions and cockiness could not be contained in the cozy confines of Cincinnati's 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium. Especially not when coaching in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus had been his lifelong dream.

Not long after he arrived in Cincinnati from Central Michigan, Kelly admitted there was a list of jobs for which he'd walk on all fours. It was a short list: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State. . . and Notre Dame. Especially Notre Dame. He grew up Irish Catholic in Boston and its environs. He watched the Irish on TV. Lindsey Nelson, twanging nasally from wherever the Domers were playing.

You can't expect a man to give up on his dream. You can't expect him to forget his first girlfriend. It doesn't matter that Cincinnati will have a better team, on paper, next August than it has right now, and certainly a far better club than the one Kelly inherits in South Bend. It's interesting, but not relevant, that the Bearcats will begin the 2010 year ranked in or near the Top 10.

It's of no great consequence, when you are madly in love, that UC has redone Kelly's contract twice in three years, and was prepared to do it a third time, or that the school has borrowed $9 million to pay for new practice fields and a practice bubble or that long-range plans to expand and renovate charming Nippert Stadium were on the table.

Maybe Kelly convinced the Domers to relax admission standards for several "skill position'' players a year. Maybe he will convince them they need to have a training table where only football players can eat, and that discipline of those players should come from him, not the school. Those are the sorts of requests made by Urban Meyer several years ago, when he interviewed for the job and decided to pass, and by Bob Stoops, just a few weeks ago.

More likely, it doesn't matter. Kelly will believe, as others have before him, that his coaching abilities will carry the day. He might be right. Kelly possesses a rare blend of charisma, people skills and football genius, especially on the offensive side of things. P.T. Barnum meets Bill Walsh.

In three years at Cincinnati, Kelly won hearts, minds and 34 games in 40 tries, at a school where they'd discussed dropping football as recently as 20 years ago. His offseason calendar resembled an election year politician's: 75 local appearances in 2009 alone. Corporate retreats to high school sports stags. Kelly ate so much rubber chicken, he bounced.

Kelly's can-do spirit so energized the school -- and by extension the city of Cincinnati -- that recently-appointed UC president Gregory Williams cited it in a speech, calling for his colleagues to dream as boldly as their football coach.

The Bearcats were not ranked entering the year. They lost their starting quarterback (and erstwhile Heisman candidate) Tony Pike for most of five games. They had to beat Pitt on the road, in the last game of the season, to make it to their second consecutive BCS bowl game. They went unbeaten for the first time in school history.

You knew it wouldn't last.

As a whole, big-time college coaches are among the most ambitious and disingenuous people in sports. Say one thing, do another. Tell a local reporter on the cell phone that you're not going anywhere, while you're scowling at the mover for scratching your hardwood floors with a couch leg.

Words such as "loyalty'' and "commitment'' are nice and often heard in big-time college sports. They're also about as worthy as the paper on which a contract is written. Quasi-amateur coaches rarely finish what they start.

"I don't think Cincinnati should be a steppingstone anymore for coaches,'' Pike said Thursday. Think again. Places like Cincinnati -- and really, almost any place not named Penn State, Florida or Texas -- are always going to be bus stops for the ambitious and talented. They might be nice bus stops. But they're still bus stops.

As is the case with 90 percent of D-I schools, Cincinnati has been a Coach, not a Program. The school could have given Kelly everything it had and ultimately it wouldn't have mattered. The heart wants what it wants.

Cincinnati isn't Notre Dame. Only Notre Dame is Notre Dame.