There’s a new twist in the increasingly acrimonious legal battle between the Razorback Foundation and former Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema. The foundation on Thursday countersued Bielema for fraud and added his agent, Neil Cornrich, as a defendant.
Sportico has obtained the foundation’s countersuit, which was filed in an Arkansas federal court and responds to Bielema’s $7 million lawsuit.
The foundation insists that “Cornrich used his connection with Bill Belichick and the Patriots to negotiate a [low] salary for Bielema.” This move, the Foundation maintains, “benefitted the Patriots, and, by extension, [Cornrich’s] other client, Bill Belichick, to the detriment of the Foundation.”
The foundation’s theory relates to the buyout agreement it signed after Bielema’s firing in 2017. Per the agreement, the foundation pledged to pay Bielema $12 million over the course of several years. However, due to a mitigation clause, Bielema—who is now a New York Giants assistant coach—had to use “best efforts” to land another job and to then negotiate a maximum salary for that new job. The clause didn’t require Bielema to pursue any type of occupation, only that he make best efforts to be hired and be paid a market wage. Income earned by Bielema in a new job would offset the amount owed by the foundation.
The offset contained an important limitation: Bielema could earn up to $150,000 in 2018, $125,000 in 2019 and $100,000 in 2020 without those earnings reducing the amount owed.
The foundation asserts that Cornrich conspired with Bielema to orchestrate a “scheme” that worked to the Patriots’ advantage. As the Foundation sees it, the Patriots hired Bielema for a salary “that was purposefully less than the trigger amount” for the offset.
In 2018, the Patriots hired Bielema first as a draft consultant for $25,000 and then as special assistant to Belichick, a position for which he earned $100,000. A year later the Patriots promoted Bielema to assistant coach and paid him an annual salary of $250,000. These salary figures, the foundation maintains, were below market.
Expect Bielema’s legal team, led by Tom Mars, to rebut the foundation’s line of reasoning. There are at least three likely arguments.
First, it’s unclear why Belichick and the Patriots would participate in a supposed scheme over what are comparatively small dollars. The Patriots are worth $4.97 billion and are owned by Robert Kraft, whose net worth is estimated at $6.6 billion. It seems unlikely that Bielema’s salary as a low-level coach would have meaningfully impacted the team–or, arguably, that the team would go to the trouble of manipulating Bielema’s pay so that the foundation would owe slightly more money.
Second, Bielema was not in a strong bargaining position when he negotiated a salary with the Patriots. He was a recently-fired college coach who finished at Arkansas with a disappointing 29-34 record. Bielema was also out of work. One might surmise the Patriots, a Super Bowl contender, did Cornrich a favor by taking on Bielema and rehabilitating his reputation.
Third, as noted in previous court filings, Bielema pursued other–and higher-paying–coaching positions but struck out each time. If Cornrich, Bielema and Belichick had conspired along the lines suggested by the foundation, it wouldn’t have made much sense for Bielema to actively pursue those jobs.
The litigation is soon entering pretrial discovery, where both sides will share sensitive emails and answer questions under oath. Given the trajectory of the case, some interesting revelations might be on tap.