Bryan Harsin wasted little time. During his opening remarks Thursday at SEC Media Days, the Auburn coach didn't merely address what he called "the gorilla in the room." He stared straight into its face and spit in its eye.
"Going back to what happened back in February, what I'm going to do now is address it," Harsin said. "Moving forward, that will be the last time I talk about this subject. There was an inquiry. It was uncomfortable. It was unfounded. It presented an opportunity for people to personally attack me, my family and also our program. And it didn't work."
The "inquiry," conducted by the university administration, was described in February by Auburn's interim president, Dr. Jay Gogue, as an "evaluation of concerns raised regarding our football program." It raised the possibility that Harsin might not return to the Plains for Year Two.
The conclusion: A strong statement of support from Gogue for Harsin.
"What it did is it united our football team, our players, our staff," Harsin said. "I'm really proud of our guys. I'm proud of how our guys stepped up and handled it."
During the evaluation, a group of Auburn players visited with Gogue to express their support for Harsin. Two of those players, Edge linebacker Derick Hall and tight end John Samuel Shenker, accompanied Harsin to Atlanta. Hall, Shenker and tailback Tank Bigsby, the final member of the team's Media Days contingent, all said the experience brought the Tigers closer together.
"We knew we wanted to back him because we wanted him to be our head coach," Shenker said. "We knew he was the reason we're going to be successful."
Shenker described a "flip the page" mentality that took hold with the team after the university's vote of confidence in the head coach. The Tigers needed a fresh start after Harsin's first season ended with five straight losses, including a heartbreaking four-overtime defeat against Alabama, and a 6-7 record.
There's a different look to the coaching staff, with four fresh on-field assistants and three new coordinators: Jeff Schmedding on defense, Eric Kiesau on offense and Roc Bellantoni on special teams. Schmedding and Kiesau, who both followed Harsin from Boise State to Auburn, spent last season in different roles with the Tigers.
On the field, there will be a quarterback battle in fall camp to replace three-year starter Bo Nix, who missed the last three games of last season with an ankle injury, then transferred to Oregon. The competition includes three transfers: T.J. Finley from LSU, who spent last season at Auburn, led a game-winning drive against Georgia State and started the last three games; Zach Calzada from Texas A&M, who led the Aggies to an upset of Alabama last year; and Robby Ashford from Oregon.
"Every single one of those quarterbacks, they bring something to the table," Harsin said. "They're all pushing themselves."
Calzada missed the spring because of a procedure to correct a non-throwing shoulder injury, which he sustained in a win over Auburn, but is expected to be full go for preseason camp. Harsin said the A&M transfer "has been awesome. Every day he's been there, just the work ethic, the focus, the attention to detail, the little opportunities to do more when he has a chance to do that, has really become his foundation."
Who will win the job? Will it matter if Bigsby can improve on his 1,099 rushing yards? How will the new staff mesh? Can the Tigers take advantage of five straight home games to open the season and avoid another second-half slump? There are plenty of questions and doubters outside the program, but Bigsby said, "we're not into all that media stuff."
Harsin sounded confident that this team will answer the questions and dispel the doubts.
"There's a great energy in our program right now," he said. "There's alignment in our program right now."
All that's left to do is turn that energy and alignment into victories.