Brian Kelly left Cincinnati as a winner.
The same cannot be said for the Bearcats' seniors or the group of Kelly's former assistants who were left to lead Cincinnati into the Sugar Bowl against Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators.
With Kelly leaving for Notre Dame after fourth-ranked Cincinnati finished its regular season 12-0, the Big East champion Bearcats had three weeks to refocus on facing No. 5 Florida under offensive coordinator and interim coach Jeff Quinn.
The Bearcats will never know if Kelly calling the plays would have made a difference Friday night. All they know is they didn't get in the end zone until 4:46 remained in the third quarter, which was far too late. Florida was already cruising to a 51-24 blowout by then.
"We as a group wish Coach Kelly nothing but the best. We knew it was a decision he had to make," Cincinnati quarterback Tony Pike said. "But at the same time the coaching staff and Coach Quinn, you know, it wasn't easy being thrown into something like that. ... at times they didn't know where they were going to be next year and if they were going to have a job."
After making its BCS bowl debut with a 20-7 loss to Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl a year ago, Cincinnati hoped to fare better this time. During the past week, the Bearcats spoke excitedly about possibly registering the biggest victory in Cincinnati history if they could knock off mighty Florida.
Instead, their BCS encore was worse than their debut.
On the question of whether that hurt Cincinnati's credibility, linebacker Andre Revels was defiant.
"The Cincinnati Bearcats this year have been counted out 13 times," Revels said. "Twelve times in a row we came away with a victory. One time _ one time _ you guys got it right, and that's today."
With Tebow putting on the finest performance by a quarterback in Sugar Bowl history, odds are it would not have mattered who was running the show on the Cincinnati sideline. The Bearcats' defense simply couldn't stop one of the best quarterbacks in college football history.
Tebow was 31 of 35 for a career high and Sugar Bowl-record 482 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 51 yards and a score, giving him a Bowl Championship Series-record 533 total yards. Florida racked up 659 yards of total offense.
As red-clad Bearcats fans filed out of the Louisiana Superdome early in the fourth quarter, the Gator chomp was in full force among those wearing orange and blue.
"No coaching change is easy, but Coach Quinn and his staff made it the easiest transition that it could possibly be because of how they stuck with us," Cincinnati linebacker Andre Revels said.
Cincinnati came into the game averaging a whopping 464.2 yards and 39.8 points. The Bearcats needed to do even better than that against the Gators.
Instead, Cincinnati's normally prolific tandem of Pike and receiver Mardy Gilyard was largely neutralized. The Bearcats managed only a field goal in the first half, during which Pike threw for only 60 yards.
Florida forced Cincinnati to throw short, holding Gilyard to four catches for 20 yards through the first two quarters.
When Pike tried to find Gilyard deep, the receiver became a defensive back, swatting to break up a potential interception as two defenders converged on the ball.
Pike wound up 27 of 45 for 170 yards passing and three TDs. Gilyard had seven catches for 41 yards and did not get in the end zone.
Gilyard did set one Sugar Bowl record with 207 kickoff return yards. That was in large part because Florida kept scoring, giving Gilyard eight kickoff returns.
"We lost back-to-back BCS bowl games and that's a sick feeling," Gilyard said. "By the same token, we have to pull out the positives. The positives are that we had a perfect season ... We set the bar pretty high.
"Our program, we're going to be all right. Just because Mardy and Pike's leaving, it doesn't mean our offense and our team and our school is like, back down in the lower levels."