Big East needs Kelly to anchor league

When the Big East Conference holds its annual July football media day at Newport, R.I., the social highlight is a clambake at the beach. At the 2009 party, the league should save the choicest littlenecks and largest lobster for Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly.

Give him the swankest hotel room while you're at it. And if there's golf to be played, pair him with the best partners. Let 'em cheat if they want, too.

Low gross and low net go to the foursome headed by ... Brian Kelly! Closest to the pin winner is ... Brian Kelly! Longest drive goes to ... Brian Kelly! Guess what, Brian? You won all the door prizes, too!

The Big East needs Brian Kelly the way Us Weekly needs Britney Spears.

The conference lost its previous two championship coaches. Bobby Petrino dumped Louisville for the Atlanta Falcons after the 2006 season, and Rich Rodriguez acrimoniously abandoned West Virginia for Michigan in 2007.

Kelly's Bearcats won the Big East this season in gutty and improbable fashion, cobbling together a 11-2 record despite using five quarterbacks. They earned the school's first BCS bowl bid and will face Virginia Tech in the FedEx Orange Bowl on Thursday. After the work on the field was done, the league and the city of Cincinnati collectively did backflips when Kelly announced in early December that he'll be back in 2009 -- ending weeks of rumors that linked him to every opening this side of Barack Obama's cabinet.

(Even that wouldn't be completely ludicrous, given Kelly's past as a Democratic Party worker in the 1980s. But let's stick with football here.)

If the Big East is going to maintain BCS-level viability, it must stop being a stepping-stone conference for its best coaches. It must become a destination conference for star players and star coaches alike.

That's a lot to ask from a league lacking the big-tradition programs that populate the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12. But it's the only way for the Big East to truly compete with America's heavyweight football schools.

Louisville tried everything to keep Petrino. He left anyway, just a few months after agreeing to a 10-year, $25 million contract -- an enormous outlay for a school of unspectacular football heritage and backing.

West Virginia thought it had Rodriguez for life -- he was a native son and alum who had turned down Alabama the year before. He left anyway, fleeing Morgantown before the Mountaineers even played in the Fiesta Bowl and spawning an epic hissing match between coach and scorned fans.

No offense to Greg Schiano or Randy Edsall, but the Big East now turns to Kelly to be its leading light. He's a spectacular 22-5 in two-plus years, aided by the solid foundation left by Mark Dantonio in his three seasons before jumping to Michigan State. Before that, Kelly did good work in a tough job at Central Michigan, and prior to that, he was a huge winner for 13 years at Division II Grand Valley State.

And if you want to take the winner's pedigree back one more step, it must be noted that Kelly was 64-54 as the softball coach at Assumption (Mass.) College, his alma mater. When he quit that job, he was the winningest softball coach in school history. Not even Joe Paterno can say that.

This year, Kelly's name was tossed around for the open jobs at Tennessee and Washington -- and for the job that never opened at Notre Dame. It did not escape attention that Kelly's renewed pledge of loyalty to Cincinnati was remarkably well-timed to the news that the Irish were keeping Charlie Weis -- Kelly beat ND to the public punch by just a few hours.

The thinking was the Irish Catholic coach announced his decision to stay at Cincy only after he knew Notre Dame wasn't going to open. Which means the Bearcats are one more subpar season by Weis away from going through all this again.

But in the meantime, Cincinnati is doing what it can to make itself a destination program. After last season, it gave Kelly a fat raise and pledged to build two new practice fields while installing a temporary bubble to facilitate winter workouts.

Cincinnati athletic director Mike Thomas said someone recently told him, "Brian's the kind who likes to play with Legos, and he just wants more Legos to play with." Translated from the toy department to the athletic department, that means he wants the facilities and support staff and other accoutrements that make it easier to build something big.

All these things take money, of course, and so there are discussions afoot about expanding Nippert Stadium, an underrated on-campus jewel, and adding luxury boxes and club seats.

Are UC's considerable efforts of the past 12 months enough to keep Kelly in the Queen City if Notre Dame or another big-shot program comes calling in '09?

"That's always a concern of an athletic director," Thomas said. "But what we're talking about at the University of Cincinnati is really a referendum on Division I football. We want to make sure we have the resources and infrastructure in place to have stability no matter who the coach is.

"I hope it never happens. I hope Brian and I grow old together at Cincinnati."

Thomas also said that as of a few days ago, UC had sold about 13,000 tickets of its allotment of 17,500. Selling 17,500 tickets would take about 10 minutes at Notre Dame, Tennessee or any other Cadillac program.

But if you look at it from a certain angle, the Cincinnati job is an attractive one. You can make a million dollars. You can earn citywide adulation in a place that is tired of the losing Bengals and is willing to march to a non-Buckeyes beat. You can recruit from a strong metropolitan talent pool. Your path to a BCS bowl is arguably the easiest of them all. And if you're Kelly and your wife is recovering from breast cancer, you can get big-city medical care in a town small enough to embrace college sports.

Combine those things with Kelly's manageable ego -- the man stayed at Grand Valley State a lot longer than any naked striver would tolerate -- and it's not a bad fit. Maybe even a destination fit.

But if the pot still needs to be sweetened, the Big East should throw in the largest lobster.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.