- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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If you want the true definition of steppingstone job, turn your eyes to Cincinnati.
Mark Dantonio left after three seasons for Michigan State.
Brian Kelly left after three seasons for Notre Dame.
Now Butch Jones joins 'em, leaving after three seasons for Tennessee.
This has become a way of life for Bearcats fans. On the heels of Charlie Strong making the out-of-the-ordinary decision to stay at Louisville, there would be no such feel-good story in Cincinnati. Jones opted instead to hit the road for the riches that await in Knoxville, along with all of the other goodies that come with coaching in the SEC -- a 100,000-seat stadium, a rabid fan base, world-class facilities and the constant pressure to win immediately -- or else.
You understand why he left. The Big East is falling apart. Cincinnati cannot fill its 35,000-seat home stadium despite all of its success. The lure of the SEC is incredibly powerful, particularly at a place as steeped in tradition as Tennessee. This may be his only shot to coach in the best conference in America, and he took it.
But the truth is, this week was an absolute mess. Jones took his players and his program through the ringer, interviewing first at Purdue, then Colorado and finally Tennessee. In between all that, he held two news conferences as Cincinnati head coach -- one on campus with Belk Bowl officials in which reporters were forbidden from asking about his coaching future; the other in Charlotte promoting the bowl game, as if everybody was oblivious to the reality of his situation.
It seemed pretty clear he would not be back at Cincinnati. When reports surfaced that he had accepted the Colorado job on Wednesday night, he vehemently denied he was leaving. Yet there was no official announcement that he would stay at Cincinnati, either. Jones was just waiting for the right opportunity.
While Purdue and Colorado seemed OK, Cincinnati ended up being much better to Jones. Tennessee? Well, once that fell into his lap, you knew the pull would be irresistible. You've gotta sell high, as they say, and Jones did that better than anyone this year.
So now here Cincinnati is again, looking for another coach. Though there may be hard feelings today about the way Jones left -- and the way he followed the same path as the coaches before him -- the truth is this program has survived these types of losses and thrived. Dantonio left, and Kelly ended up going to two BCS games and winning national coach of the year honors; Kelly left, and Jones ended up winning at least a share of the Big East twice in three years, and Big East coach of the year honors in 2011.
This program is better off today than it was when Dantonio left. There is a strong foundation full of talented players. Jones and Kelly proved you don't need all the bells and whistles to win. There will be plenty of good coaches interested in getting the opportunity to lead this program.
Cincinnati will survive.
But it has become pretty obvious now that Cincinnati is not a destination job. And that's fine. This will never be Tennessee, and this will never be Notre Dame. Getting into a new conference may change that reality, but until then, most everyone will wonder whether the next head coach will stick around longer than the past three.