CINCINNATI (AP) - Brian Kelly's final gesture as Cincinnati's head coach was to thank his players for helping him land his dream job.
He's leaving the unbeaten Bearcats for the unmatched expectations at Notre Dame.
Kelly agreed to a five-year contract with the Fighting Irish and immediately began the makeover. Shortly after he told his Cincinnati players he was leaving - an awkward post-team banquet moment that left some very upset - he switched his Twitter page to an Irish motif.
His allegiance already is with South Bend, where he'll be introduced on Friday afternoon.
"He said it himself in there: We're the ones that created this opportunity for him," Cincinnati tight end Ben Guidugli said, after Kelly broke the news. "He actually was thanking us for the work we've done to get him in the position that he's in."
The Irish Catholic coach who once dreamed of becoming a politician is stepping into one of the most storied - and, lately, most disappointing - college football programs. Ten days after firing Charlie Weis to close out the worst decade in Notre Dame's history, the school landed one of the hottest coaching prospects.
Needing a quick fix for its tattered football program, Notre Dame's counting on Kelly, who has taken Cincinnati from Big East also-ran to an unbeaten conference champ in just three years.
"I am very pleased that a thorough and extensive search has led us to a new head coach in Brian Kelly, who I am confident will help us accomplish our goal of competing for national championships," Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said in a news release.
The 47-year-old Kelly officially takes over Monday, starting the job he has always wanted. As a sign of his eagerness, Kelly's Twitter page got a complete makeover after the announcement. The background featured Notre Dame's stadium, and the biography listed South Bend as his location along with a brief statement.
"Thrilled to be the coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish," the bio said. "Committed to stirring People with PASSION and PURPOSE."
He won't have a difficult time stirring the Irish faithful. The question is whether he can succeed where his predecessors failed, returning Notre Dame to BCS prominence and keeping those fans on his side. He headed to South Bend with slightly less job security than previous coaches. The last three Notre Dame coaches started out with six-year deals - Weis, Tyrone Willingham and George O'Leary, who resigned five days after his hiring.
The last coach to get a five-year deal was Bob Davie when he took the job after the 1996 season. No matter. Kelly has long admired Notre Dame, which has gone 16-21 over the past three seasons and is losing two of its best offensive players. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and his favorite receiver, Golden Tate, announced Monday they will enter the NFL draft. Tate, speaking in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., after winning the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's best receiver, said he doesn't know a lot about Kelly.
"He seems to be a guy of high character. I'm excited for him. I think he's good for the Irish," Tate said. Offensive lineman Christian Lombard, a high school senior from Palatine, Ill., who has committed to play for the Irish next season, said he was excited about the hire.
Kelly's no-huddle, spread offenses were among the nation's best at Cincinnati.
"I'm really optimistic. He's got a great track record, so hopefully he's going to get things turned around," Lombard said. "From the time coach Weis got fired, he was the guy I wanted."
Cincinnati fans knew all along that once Weis was gone, Kelly likely was, too.
"Certainly I'm going to recognize the fact that this program made historic strides in the last three years, and we're a better football program because we crossed paths with Brian Kelly and his staff," Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas said.
Cincinnati (12-0) is getting ready to play Florida in its first Sugar Bowl. Thomas decided that Kelly won't coach the bowl. Instead, offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn - Kelly's assistant for the last 22 years - will run the team on an interim basis.
The parting was painful. The team held its annual football banquet at a downtown hotel on Thursday night. As players arrived for what was supposed to be a night of celebration, they were greeted by camera crews and reporters asking about Kelly's decision to leave Cincinnati for Notre Dame.
Three hours later, after the various awards had been handed out, players were told to gather in a meeting room so Kelly could share the news most already knew. One minute into the meeting, the door opened and senior receiver Mardy Gilyard walked out alone, save his team MVP trophy.
"He went for the money," Gilyard said. "I'm fairly disgusted with the situation, that they let it last this long."
His teammates soon followed, some with teary eyes. Gilyard said the younger players in particular - those who would play for a new coach next season - were angry and disillusioned.
"Just blindsided by the fact that it's a business," Gilyard said. "People lose sight of that. At the end of the day, NCAA football is a business. People have got to make business decisions."
Now, Cincinnati wonders whether it will keep its spot in the national spotlight under a new coach. At the men's basketball victory over Miami of Ohio on Thursday night, there were boos when Kelly's photo was shown on the videoboard. One fan held up a sign that played on Kelly's "next-man-in" philosophy.
"BKSELLOUT," the sign said. "NEXT COACH IN."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)