How S.M.U., Once the Rogue of College Sports, Got Back to the Big Time

It wasn’t just a gold Pontiac Trans Am with a painted bird on the hood. It was the car that Texas A&M gave to Eric Dickerson in 1979, when he was a top high school running back prospect, in the hope that he would become an Aggie. Instead, he drove from his hometown, Sealy, Texas, to Dallas and Southern Methodist University.

At the time, Mr. Dickerson’s cars (S.M.U. gave him one, too) were a symbol of the wretched excess of big-time college sports. It was a time when boosters in the Southwest Conference doled out “$100 handshakes” and the S.M.U. faithful winked as they talked about how they had the best football team money could buy.

The S.M.U. Mustangs went 34-11-1 over Mr. Dickerson’s four years — the team’s vaunted Pony Express era. It gave the oilmen and real estate developers and business titans across Texas who funneled cash to their alma mater bragging rights at the Petroleum Club of Houston and country clubs in Dallas.

And it drove the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs college sports, nuts. The organization had rules to stop those kinds of pay-for-play shenanigans and investigators to chase down overeager boosters, who mostly eluded their grasp. Mr. Dickerson remembers that one N.C.A.A. investigator visited his home so frequently, the guy would sit at his kitchen table and eat dinner with his family.

The N.C.A.A. eventually caught up to S.M.U. (Mr. Dickerson was long gone by then, well into a Hall of Fame career in the National Football League.) In 1987, the organization handed the football team the so-called death penalty, the severest punishment it has ever imposed on a Division I school for rules violations. The program was shut down for two seasons, and the university’s reputation was tarnished.

Ever since, S.M.U. has wandered the college sports landscape looking for a home, and a way to share in the ever-increasing riches associated with top-level amateur athletics.

It took nearly four decades, $354 million in major construction and facilities upgrades, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized S.M.U.’s original sin — allowing players to profit financially from their athletic skill — but the university has found its way back. Last summer, S.M.U. was invited to join the Atlantic Coast Conference this July.

It wasn’t cheap. S.M.U. was admitted to the A.C.C. only after agreeing to forgo nine years of conference broadcast revenues, or $270 million, to avoid diluting the pot for incumbent members.

For those wanting to trace the evolution of big-time college sports over the past half-century, there may be no better example of the shifting views on the role of money — and whether student-athletes should get any — than S.M.U.

The N.C.A.A. has lost much of its authority now that players can be compensated through name-image-likeness rules, or N.I.L., which effectively allow athletes to be paid by sponsors or donor groups known as collectives. It is staring down a number of lawsuits and challenges to its longstanding amateur model. In a bid to maintain some relevance, the organization has called for a series of changes that would pave the way for the top moneymaking schools to form a new division that would more closely resemble professional sports.

In the meantime, universities’ search for television money has changed the map of athletic conferences. The Big Ten, for instance, was once concentrated in the Midwest; now it has 18 teams and stretches from Oregon and California to New Jersey. By that measure, expanding the Atlantic Coast Conference into Texas isn’t much of a leap.

“What started more than 150 years ago with football being considered an extracurricular activity that benefited student-athletes and offered a glue for a school community to come back to campus — ‘Boola Boola’ and all that — has morphed into a tremendous industry,” said Oliver Luck, a longtime college sports administrator who was a star collegiate quarterback himself and is now a consultant. “And you got to call it an industry. There’s lots of money and lots of interest.”

Mr. Dickerson was back on campus recently, marveling at the sun sparkling off the new buildings and the six-figure income that some of the current Mustang football players are earning. And these days football is far from the only sport where athletes share in the spoils of economic success. One S.M.U. volleyball player, Alex Glover, makes well into six figures as a social media influencer.

Looked at a certain way, Mr. Dickerson thought, S.M.U. had been less a rogue program than one ahead of its time. He and his teammates had merely been on the ground floor of what has become a $17 billion ecosystem of big-time college sports. The money being reaped by current college athletes, he said, was long overdue.

“Those jerseys that schools sell don’t run around the field by themselves,” he said.

S.M.U.’s new era is personified by Ms. Glover, who merged her two passions — volleyball and social media — into a side hustle as a social influencer.

“I wanted to take people on a deep dive of how a Division I student-athlete operates from day to day,” Ms. Glover said. “There’s a lot more going on than showing up for practice and games.”

Ms. Glover scripts and shoots witty, fast-paced Instagram videos for a series called “Day in the Life of a D-1 Volleyballer.” She takes her followers to the gym, to the classroom and on walks with her dogs, as well as offering fashion and beauty tips. She also was a captain on a team that won an American Athletic Conference championship, and she completed undergraduate degrees in engineering and data science. She will complete a master’s in management science in May.

Ms. Glover is not paid by a collective, but Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Ulta Beauty are among her more than 40 sponsors.

“For me, beyond the money, N.I.L. has given me a sense of freedom and pushed me to learn these different skills as far as content creation and running a business” said Ms. Glover, who has written an e-book called “An Athlete’s Strategy to Scoring NIL Deals.

For athletes in marquee sports like football and men’s basketball, however, the experience has been more unsettling. Jake Bailey, a receiver on the football team who graduated in December with a degree in sports management, wrote a paper on the effects of N.I.L. on student-athletes. Along with the money, he wrote, came more unfamiliar responsibilities like managing your finances.

“The lump sums of money being thrown around is life changing for many players and their families,” Mr. Bailey said, adding: “Amateur is out the door. We’re pros.”

Six years ago, when he was coming out of high school in San Clemente, Calif., there was no money for colleges to dangle beyond the value of a scholarship. Instead, recruiters pitched their facilities and academics and treated him as a superstar on campus visits.

“It was about the glitz and glamour,” Mr. Bailey said.

He chose Rice University in Houston and led the Owls in all-purpose yards — yards gained on runs, receptions and returns — as a sophomore and in receiving as a junior. Mr. Bailey believed he was ready for a bigger stage and entered the transfer portal. Now schools could woo him with the promise of cash.

“I never brought money up,” Mr. Bailey said, “but the coaches would tell you where you fit on the scale of who was making this and what they were paying.”

Mr. Bailey chose S.M.U. but said he was not one of those making six figures. He does make enough to have set up a limited liability company to manage his taxes. In the locker room, he said, his teammates never discuss money. Just as it did in the Pony Express era, however, the parking lot tells all. Mr. Bailey can see who are at the top of the pay scale by the Dodge Chargers and Ford Mustangs they drive.

Last fall, Mr. Bailey was a captain and a leading receiver on a Mustang team that won the American Athletic Conference championship. With a season of eligibility left, he will pursue a graduate degree and play for S.M.U. in the A.C.C. this year.

Mr. Bailey also got a raise.

Gerald Turner, 78, is a native Texan with a honeysuckle drawl who offers cleareyed opinions delivered in full paragraphs. (He asks reporters to tape him to keep up.) By the nature of his position as S.M.U.’s president, they usually end with an ask. He understands what is important to Texans. He skinned-and-grinned with political heavyweights, business titans and federal officials for a decade to land the George W. Bush Presidential Center on campus.

He came to S.M.U. in 1995 with a mandate to make the university a national destination for academics and rebuild a reputation badly scarred by the football scandal. He has raised nearly $3 billion for 44 development projects, among them engineering and education buildings, five residential halls and a $140 million renovation and expansion of the highly regarded Cox School of Business.

S.M.U.’s professional schools climbed in rankings, undergraduate acceptance rates shrank as incoming freshmen’s test scores rose, and the university attracted more students from out of state.

Last summer, Dr. Turner called members of the board of trustees and donors to his conference room in the Perkins Administration Building to tell them that S.M.U. finally had the pieces in place to land a seat at the adults’ table of college athletics.

Dr. Turner understood the hold that athletics, particularly football, could have on a university. He was previously the chancellor at the University of Mississippi and an administrator at the University of Oklahoma. Shortly after arriving on campus, Dr. Turner set about rehabbing S.M.U.’s athletic facilities. In 2000, the 32,000-seat Gerald J. Ford Stadium opened on campus with a subtle design and an emphasis on community.

The football stadium was sunk into the southern edge of the campus near the Boulevard, a grassy, tree-lined parkway that welcomes visitors to the heart of campus. The Boulevard would be S.M.U.’s answer to the Grove at Ole Miss, an upscale tailgate space where anyone who was anyone had to be seen and that everyone could enjoy.

“If you’re not having winning seasons, there’s got to be something bigger than football to get fans there,” Dr. Turner said.

The Boulevard was an immediate hit. The reinvigorated football program not so much. S.M.U. did not return to a bowl game until 2009, and, since returning to the field in 1989, the Mustangs have managed just 10 winning seasons as they moved through three midtier conferences.

Still, over the past decade, the university renovated its basketball arena and built a field house, an aquatics center and a soccer stadium. All were improvements necessary to attract the attention of a Power Five conference.

The A.C.C. made the most sense. Beyond athletics, the conference offered an opportunity to stand academically alongside powerhouse state universities like Virginia and North Carolina as well as smaller, elite private schools such as Duke and Wake Forest.

Still, it was going to be a heavy lift, and Dr. Turner made sure his board members knew S.M.U. would have to give the A.C.C. an offer it could not refuse.

“Here’s what we want to offer, but, you know, I can’t do it unless you guys tell me to,” Dr. Turner recalled telling the board. “We’ll tell them that we will give up roughly the $30 million it would get from ESPN for adding us for up to nine years. They could use it for an incentive pool or whatever they wanted.”

Then came the ask. Dr. Turner believed the people in the boardroom as well as other deep-pocketed alums would make up the difference to help the university’s athletic department add coaching and support staff and increase salaries that would help every Mustang program compete at the top level of Division I.

“It’s going to cost each of you probably a million a year for the first five years,” Dr. Turner said.

In September, seven days after the A.C.C. officially invited S.M.U. to become a member, the university raised more than $100 million from 30 key donors and trustees.

“This is a core group who lived through the resentment and hurt feelings of the death penalty and understood this was a healing moment,” Dr. Turner said. “It puts us back where we belong.”

Still, S.M.U. paid a steep price for an uncertain future. One mainstay of the A.C.C., Florida State, wants out of the conference badly enough that it recently sued the league and claimed that it mismanaged its members’ media rights and imposed “draconian” exit fees of $572 million for the Seminoles to leave.

On the Hilltop, as the S.M.U. campus is known, there are no regrets. The football stadium’s $100 million Garry Weber End Zone Complex is loud and dusty, but its locker rooms, weight room, meeting rooms, and full kitchen and training table will be ready for S.M.U.’s 484 student-athletes come August.

“We understand that the ground is still shifting, and no one really knows where this is going to end up,” David B. Miller, the chairman of S.M.U.’s board, said. “But it’s still better to be inside that process instead of on the outside looking in.”

While gaining entrance to the A.C.C. was a negotiation between well-endowed universities and big donors, the brave new world of name, image and likeness is murky at best. How else to explain the N.I.L. valuation of $3.2 million for Arch Manning, a backup quarterback at the University of Texas, three times last year’s salary for San Francisco’s Super Bowl quarterback, Brock Purdy?

No one in college athletics disputes that the current economy of unregulated name, image and likeness is essentially play-for-pay. Alongside the transfer portal, which allows student-athletes to shop their skills for a potential starting position and more money, the best-funded institutions land the best athletes at the highest prices.

Chris Schoemann, executive director of S.M.U.’s Boulevard Collective, which doles out the university’s athlete payments, likens the current marketplace to a game of liar’s poker.

“Everyone wants to seem bigger than they are,” he said.

To that end, Mr. Schoemann is vague on numbers, allowing that a healthy collective — which he says S.M.U.’s is — requires $5 million to $8 million annually for the football and men’s and women’s basketball teams. There are benchmarks that players and their representatives either already know or Mr. Schoemann will tell them if they inquire. A top quarterback in a Power Five conference, for example, averages about $550,000 a year.

How many Mustang football players earn more than six figures?

“More than a handful,” he said.

For now, what drive the marketplace are talent and the financial wherewithal to take big risks for even bigger rewards. Rick Hart, S.M.U.’s athletic director, said it was difficult to isolate what it really cost to operate a competitive athletic program because N.I.L., the transfer portal and conference affiliation were all intertwined.

“All those things play together to create this free-agency environment that we’re in, which is challenged even further by the fact that there aren’t really any rules,” Mr. Hart said. “How much money do we need? A lot.”

Mr. Dickerson was back on campus with his former S.M.U. teammate Harvey Armstrong. Both remain hurt over the blame their team shouldered for decades after the program was shut down.

“We felt abandoned,” Mr. Armstrong said. “They not only didn’t invite us back for homecoming, they made us outlaws. I could not even get an interview for a coaching job that was open.”

Mr. Armstrong’s awkward gait is a reminder of the 15 surgical procedures he has had on his knees and back. He forgets things, gets aggravated easily and wonders if he is showing early signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the degenerative brain disease that has been found in more than 100 former N.F.L players after their deaths.

Mr. Dickerson has had regenerative stem cell therapy for nearly a decade for a bad back that often immobilizes him. Neither man regrets the toll that the game he loved took on his body. Both do regret the toll it took on their souls.

“We were indentured servants,” Mr. Dickerson said. “I call paying these kids out in the open doing the right thing. Finally.”