The legal battle between Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema and his former employer, the Razorback Foundation, is poised to last even longer. According to an amended final scheduling order issued this week in Arkansas, the jury trial date for Bielema v. Razorback Foundation has been rescheduled from June 1, 2021, to Jan. 10, 2022.
The development increases the chances of the case settling out of court—a likely desired result for New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and other team officials who may be called to testify.
The rescheduling isn’t surprising in light of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on civil litigation and jury trials. Like other courts, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas has issued administrative orders that call for the continuation (postponement) of proceedings and authorize the use of video conferences in lieu of in-person gatherings. While the American court system will gradually return to normal as COVID-19 vaccines are administered, many litigations, particularly those involving civil matters—where “only” money or property are at stake compared to criminal prosecutions, where a person’s freedom can be on the line—face backlogs and delays.
The rescheduling for January, as opposed to a date in the fall, is logistically helpful for Bielema as he coaches his first season with the Fighting Illini. The team’s 2021 schedule calls for games from August to December. Even if the Fighting Illini advance to a bowl game, it would be scheduled before Jan. 10.
Illinois, which finished just 2-6 last year under Lovie Smith, hired Bielema last December. The school signed the 51-year-old to a 6-year, $26.7 million contract. Bielema had been an assistant coach with the New York Giants, who a year earlier hired him away from the Patriots.
Bielema’s time with the Patriots has become central to the legal dispute and would be a focal point in a trial.
Bielema maintains the Foundation owes him about $7 million on a $12 million buyout negotiated after Arkansas fired him in 2017. The buyout required Bielema to make best efforts to land another job (any job) and be paid a market-based salary in that position. Bielema insists he satisfied this duty. According to court filings, the Patriots initially hired Bielema as a draft consultant for $25,000. The team later elevated him to special assistant, with a salary of $100,000, and then promoted him to assistant coach, with a salary of $250,000.
The Foundation disagrees that Bielema met his duty and has countersued him. It insists the former Big Ten coach of the year conspired with his agent, Neil Cornrich, and Belichick, also a Cornrich client, to underpay Bielema. The supposed reason: Since Bielema could annually earn up to a range of $100,000 to $150,000 in a new job without that amount reducing the Foundation’s obligation, the Foundation could effectively subsidize Bielema’s salaries with the team. Bielema’s attorneys bluntly refute this assertion, describing it as bereft of factual support and devoid of logic.
The Foundation suggests it has obtained damning evidence. Several of the 458 pages the Patriots supplied in compliance with a subpoena, the Foundation insists, are consistent with the Foundation’s theory. Attorneys for the Patriots have sharply disputed this assertion, claiming it represents a “gross misinterpretation of documents the Patriots produced.”
The dispute could settle long before a trial takes place. At the end of the day, Bielema and the Foundation are arguing over money. If they could identify a dollar amount that both can live with, the case would end and no trial would occur. They now have an additional six months to find that amount.
Patriots officials—Belichick in particular—are likely rooting for Bielema and the Foundation to settle. Those officials could be called to testify in a trial. They would be asked about a range of topics related to Bielema’s hiring and subsequent employment. Questions about the Patriots’ negotiation of Bielema’s salary would be raised. So too would related topics, such as how the Patriots determine compensation for coaches and how they evaluate job candidates. The team could worry about confidential information and trade secrets becoming public.
The prospect of Belichick facing cross examination in a federal trial would certainly draw media interest. He has, at times, bristled at having to answer questions posed by journalists during press conferences. Questions constructed by seasoned litigators would likely prove more scrutinizing. The eight-time Super Bowl winning coach (six as Patriots head coach, two as the New York Giants defensive coordinator) has also been known to offer terse, non-responsive remarks, an approach that wouldn’t work well in a trial presided over by a judge and watched by jurors.
Lastly, while January 2022 would likely comply with a college football schedule, it could prove problematic for an NFL playoff team. The Patriots failed to qualify for the playoffs last season for the first time in a dozen years, but if they return next year, their playoff schedule would run through January.