BRIAN KELLY sold a dream.

Three years ago, he arrived at a downtrodden University of Cincinnati program and told the players to put their faith in him.

He would turn them into winners.

Kelly walked into the homes of high school players and convinced them to come to his rebuilding program when they might have had other options.

Inherent, if not explicitly promised in Kelly's sales pitch, was the assumption that he would be there all the way with his players to see this dream realized.

Last Thursday, Kelly bailed out on Cincinnati to take the head-coaching job at the University of Notre Dame.

The fourth-ranked Bearcats, who completed the regular season 12-0, are scheduled to play Florida in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.

Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, Jeff Quinn, will guide the team in the biggest game in the school's history.

Kelly will be out on the circuit with an easier sales pitch for convincing kids that they can help him return Notre Dame to championship glory.

I can't fault Kelly for bolting to Notre Dame - although it would have been nice if he had told his players before the official news broke just before their seniors banquet.

Virtually every coach in his position, and some in better positions, would leave his current program for a shot at Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish might not have had much punch over the last decade, but they still have a history matched by only a few select programs.

The lure of the golden dome, "Touchdown, Jesus," "The Gipper" far outweigh what Cincinnati could offer,

The coach who brings Notre Dame back will become a historical one.

Coaches at less-prominent programs are always in pursuit of jobs at more prominent programs.

So, no, I can't blame Kelly for quitting on Cincinnati.

But I can blame the National Collegiate Athletic Association for letting it happen without penalty.

Every year at the conclusion of each football or basketball season, programs that have had disappointing seasons fire their coaches and commence with a raiding procedure that creates a domino effect, leaving several other programs in turmoil.

Notre Dame stealing Kelly will cause Cincinnati to pursue some other school's coach, causing that school to find a new coach . . . etc., etc., etc.

The NCAA should treat coaches with years remaining on contracts the same way it treats scholarship players.

Any coach who voluntarily leaves a program with years remaining on his or her contract should be forced to sit out a year before being able to work at a new job.

Why not?

If a star freshman player at Cincinnati decided he wanted to transfer to pursue a dream of playing at Notre Dame, NCAA rules would require him to sit out a year and sacrifice a season of eligibility.

There is no such penalty for a coach who bails out on a commitment to one program to take an opportunity at another one.

What's the difference?

The system now says is that a 17- or 18-year-old kid who finds out he made a bad choice should be punished, while the adults, who supposedly are there to set good examples, can quit on the same kids without penalty.

Some schools try to protect themselves with hefty buyout penalties if a coach breaks a contract; Kelly must reportedly pay Cincinnati $1 million within a year.

Still, let's be honest, a buyout won't be an impediment when a big boy like Notre Dame, Michigan or Florida comes knocking.

Unless they are bidding against each other for the same coach, those schools almost always have the clout and the cash to get their man.

Obviously, the NCAA won't have the spine to enact such a policy, but it could at least put a moratorium on the hiring of coaches under contract to other programs until that school's season is complete.

It's not fair that the players at Cincinnati, who worked so hard to complete a perfect regular season, have their Sugar Bowl experience thrown into turmoil because their coach bailed out on them before the game was played.

If Notre Dame wanted Kelly that badly, then it could have waited until after the Sugar Bowl to pursue him.

So what if that would have put the Irish behind in the recruiting process?

That's the price to be paid for stealing another program's coach.

Of course, none of this will happen.

The NCAA is great at stepping on the gnats but usually buckles when it comes to taking on anything bigger than a fly.

Send e-mail to smallwj@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/smallwood.