A new court filing Monday in Bret Bielema’s $7 million litigation against the Razorback Foundation contains the potential bombshell that New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick thought he was overpaying, not underpaying, the former Razorbacks head coach when he worked for the Patriots in 2018-19.
The filing reveals that several successful coaches had joined Belichick’s staff for salaries as low as $15,000—far lower than Bielema’s six-figure annual wages.
The filing comes almost a week after U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III agreed to keep emails between Belichick and Patriots owner Robert Kraft sealed as part of a protective order. Attorneys for both sides have filed dueling briefs since Judge Holmes’s order. The filings shed substantial light on the sealed emails and their relevance to the case.
As expected, the Razorback Foundation last week filed an amended counterclaim against Bielema and agent Neil Cornrich. The Foundation insists that Bielema, whom Arkansas fired in 2017, violated his contractual obligation to undertake “best efforts” to land a new job and to obtain market-based pay for that job. The focus of the Razorback’s argument is on Bielema, who is now head coach at Illinois, joining the Patriots in 2018. The Patriots initially hired Bielema as a draft consultant. They later promoted him, first to special assistant and then to assistant coach.
Bielema’s obligation to the Foundation stemmed from an excluded income provision, or carve-out, in his buyout. The provision expressed that Bielema could earn up to a range of $100,000 to $150,000 annually without that amount reducing the Foundation’s $12 million obligation. The Patriots initially paid Bielema, who insists the Foundation owes him $7 million, $25,000 as a consultant. He later earned salaries of $100,000 and $250,000 in full-time roles.
Through attorney Marshall Ney, the Foundation portrays Bielema’s Patriots salaries as suspiciously below-market and “far below could have earned given his experience.” The Foundation also asserts that “Bielema took himself off the job market” for lucrative college head coaching positions while he worked for the Patriots (Bielema’s attorneys dispute that claim, arguing that Bielema pursued several college jobs but didn’t land them).
To that end, the Foundation contends that Bielema and Belichick, along with their mutual agent, Cornrich, willfully designed Bielema’s Patriots employment so that he would be underpaid. The Foundation would then have to pay the difference, thereby saving the Patriots, which Sportico values at $4.97 billion, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Sealed emails between Belichick and Kraft, the Foundation maintains, support that theory.
Bielema’s answer to the counterclaim tells a completely different story. Authored by attorney Tom Mars, the answer asserts that the relevant persons—including Bielema, Cornrich and Foundation executive director Scott Varady—all assumed Bielema’s carve-out was limited to non-football coaching opportunities, namely broadcasting jobs. Bielema had apparently discussed taking a break from coaching to pursue TV work. Varady, as depicted in the answer, was the one who proposed the carveout for income outside of coaching.
In other words, at least as portrayed by Mars, Bielema and Cornrich believed that all of the money Bielema earned with the Patriots would reduce the amount owed by the Foundation and that none of it would count as excluded income (i.e., money Bielema keeps). An apparent contract drafting error or oversight led to the carve-out being worded more expansively than had been negotiated.
To support this argument, the answer notes that Bielema set up an account at Santander Bank in Foxboro, Massachusetts, for what Mars describes as “the purpose of segregating his income from the Patriots.” This decision, Mars maintains, is consistent with Bielema believing the money would go to the Foundation. If Bielema thought the money was his to keep, he presumably wouldn’t have bothered to create a new bank account for that specific source of income.
The answer also discusses how Cornrich behaved as if Bielema’s carve-out was limited to non-coaching income. After reviewing Cornrich’s invoices, Mars writes—revealingly—that Cornrich didn’t charge Bielema his standard agent fee for Bielema’s Patriots earnings. Cornrich, the answer expresses, doesn’t charge clients who are subject to a full reimbursement since the client would be paying a commission for money he or she doesn’t keep.
Perhaps the most illuminating information in the answer comes in its portrayal of perception by Belichick and Kraft of Bielema’s salary. To reiterate, actual language from the sealed Belichick-Kraft emails isn’t publicly accessible. Yet, as described by Mars, Belichick and Kraft believed they were overpaying Bielema, not underpaying him. This is apparent in how the answer discusses the emails.
“A decision [as reflected in the emails] by the Patriots in 2018 and again in 2019,” the answer explains “to pay Coach Bielema a higher salary than what the Patriots would have paid him if his salary would not have been an offset against the buyout obligations of a Power Five school’s fundraising affiliate … according to publicly available information, highly successful coaches who previously worked for Coach Belichick understood the value of that opportunity and eagerly joined his staff with an annual salary as low as $15,000.” [emphasis added by Sportico]
Bielema, who had just been fired by a college program, lacked any NFL coaching experience when the Patriots hired him. Mars contends the Patriots normally pay new coach without NFL experience between $15,000 and $65,000 a year—not the $100,000 that Bielema would be paid.
This retelling of low Patriots salaries is consistent with a 2016 story authored by Kevin Duffy for Masslive.com. The story focused on Brian Daboll, who is now Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator. Five years ago, Daboll served as tight ends coach for the Patriots and in the early 2000s was a defensive assistant for Belichick. Daboll told Duffy about how he was hired by the Patriots in 2000. He recalled his expectation to ask for $70,000 in salary. Daboll had “dug up salary surveys from the NFL Coaches Association” and learned the average annual salary was around $65,000. He thought it might be appropriate to ask for a bit more—$70,000—given that he coached under Nick Saban at Michigan State in the late 1990s. Instead, Patriots special teams coordinator Brad Seely warned Daboll that $15,000 would be a better ask if he wanted to coach under Belichick. Daboll heeded the advice.
Why would Belichick (allegedly) overpay Bielema and why would Kraft (again, allegedly) go along with the plan? The answer doesn’t share an explanation. But if the answer’s retelling is accurate, the Patriots might have worried that if they paid Bielema the normal Patriots bargain rate for a coach without NFL experience, it would have damaged relations with Arkansas, a program from which the Patriots recruit players (Patriots defensive end Deatrich Wise Jr., a Patriots fourth round pick in 2017, played for Bielema at Arkansas). The school could believe that the Patriots were underpaying Bielema so that the Foundation would have to pay the difference.
In short, a case built on a theory of underpay might in reality be about overpay. We’ll see how the Foundation responds.
(This story has updated the headline.)