ATLANTA - It's not uncommon for Southeastern Conference football coaches at media days to express their appreciation for simply being in the tradition-rich league.
On Thursday morning, Bryan Harsin really meant it.
Auburn's second-year coach was in limbo in early February when the university looked into his program after a 6-7 debut season that was followed by an exodus of players and assistant coaches. Harsin's Tigers were 6-2 and ranked 12th in the country after downing Ole Miss 31-20 last Halloween weekend, but they lost their final five contests to finish with a losing record for the first time since Gene Chizik's firing following the 3-9 debacle of 2012.
"There was an inquiry. It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded," Harsin said as media days drew to a close. "It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family and also our program - and it didn't work. What came out of that inquiry were a lot of positives. There was a silver lining in all of this.
"What I saw from our players and our coaches were leadership opportunities for them to step up, which is exactly what they did."
Harsin had left the country on a previously scheduled vacation Feb. 3, and his status was not determined until then-president Jay Gogue released a statement eight days later after the investigation had concluded.
"Let me be clear - our university, the administration and the entire board of trustees stand behind Coach Harsin and are ready to help him succeed as the leader of our football program," Gogue said in the statement. "It is my hope and expectation that the entire Auburn family will join us in uniting behind Coach Harsin."
Since the verdict, Harsin has been focused on advancing a program that lost 20 players to the transfer portal and has employed five coordinators well before his second season kicks off. The united front expressed by Gogue was reflected Thursday with Auburn's top players.
"It was a crazy time that caught everyone off guard," senior edge rusher Derrick Hall said. "Nobody really knew what was going on. There were all these allegations that we had to assess as a team, but we still came to work every day. There was no stoppage in work, and everyone was doing what he needed to do no matter if Coach Harsin was going to be here or not.
"We're blessed that Coach Harsin is still here, and we're glad he's here with us. This has most definitely brought us closer."
Junior running back Tank Bigsby said the team coming together without the certainty of the head coach returning strengthened the relationships among the players, adding, "I felt like we needed that."
Although surviving February's chaos is now in the rearview mirror, Auburn still has plenty of challenges in the months ahead and could be picked last in the SEC West when the preseason media poll is released Friday. Bigsby has rushed for 1,933 yards in his first two seasons and is as stout as any running back in the league, but the quarterback position is unsettled between division transfers Zach Calzada (Texas A&M) and T.J. Finley (LSU), who became last year's starter once Bo Nix was lost for the season.
Nix, the most notable of Auburn's portal departures, is now at Oregon.
The Tigers always have a daunting schedule with Alabama and Georgia as annual rivals, and they must take trips to Tuscaloosa and Athens. Auburn's top nonconference task is a date with Penn State, which topped the Tigers 28-20 last season, but that matchup is among five home games Auburn has to open the year.
"It's on our side. The season is on our side," Bigsby said. "We've got a lot of home games, including the five in a row, so I feel like if we can do what we can do that we can shock a lot of people."
Smart's big payday
A day after taking the stage at media days, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was rewarded with a new 10-year contract Thursday that will start him at $10.25 million this season and culminate with a $12.25 million salary in 2031.
Smart, who guided the Bulldogs to the national championship game of the 2017 season and to the national title last year, now has college football's most lucrative contract.
"This is home for us, and our roots run deep here," Smart said in a statement. "My commitment to this university and our football program is unwavering. I'm thankful to president Jere Morehead and (athletic director) Josh Brooks for their continued support of Georgia football.
"It's an honor being the head football coach at the University of Georgia, and while I'm certainly proud of what we've been able to accomplish, I'm confident the best is yet to come."
Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher was asked Thursday about Auburn now having Calzada and how he now has former LSU quarterback Max Johnson.
"South Carolina has Oklahoma's starting quarterback, and USC has Oklahoma's starting quarterback," Fisher responded. "It's the wild, wild west. It's crazy, but these are the times we're in. Did you ever think it would come to this? No, but at the same time, there are reasons to transfer.
"Sometimes I hope that these guys will try to stick things out, but there are reasons. It makes it an interesting show, that's for sure."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com.