With the Razorback Foundation seeking a dismissal of former Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema’s $7 million lawsuit, attorneys for the one-time Big Ten Coach of the Year filed a lengthy brief to U.S. District Judge Paul Holmes on Thursday night.
Sportico has obtained a copy of the 34-page filing, which ridicules the Razorback Foundation’s claims.
Now an assistant coach for the New York Giants, Bielema maintains that the Foundation breached the terms of a $12 million buyout agreement signed in 2018. In the wake of Bielema’s firing, the Foundation pledged to pay him through 2020—offset against any earnings from a new employer. The offset was limited: Bielema could earn up to $150,000 in 2018, $125,000 in 2019 and $100,000 in 2020 without those earnings reducing the Foundation’s tab.
The Foundation insists that Bielema failed to use “best efforts”, as required in a mitigation clause, to land a high-paying coaching job. The Foundation asserts that Bielema adopted what it labels a “do nothing approach” to seeking another head coaching job. As depicted by the Foundation, Bielema merely settled for a low-paying position with the New England Patriots knowing that the Foundation would pay him.
Much of the case thus turns on Bielema’s employment with the Patriots from 2018 to 2020. He served several roles for head coach Bill Belichick while earning low-six figure salaries. Bielema and the Foundation disagree about the extent to which he sought other jobs during that time.
In Thursday’s filing, Thomas Mars and other attorneys for Bielema ridicule the Foundation’s assertions. They maintain the Foundation is relying on contractual language that simply doesn’t exist.
“The most careful, microscopic review of the agreement,” Bielema’s brief contends, “would not reveal a single word, phrase, or sentence that imposed an obligation on Coach Bielema to seek the highest-paying position he could obtain – much less to seek a position that paid an annual salary of more than $150,000.”
Further, the brief sarcastically terms it an “invisible ink requirement” that Bielema had to pursue a particular job. As worded in the buyout, Bielema had to seek a competitive salary for a job but there is no mention of him having to seek a DI head coaching position or any other role.
The case bears watching for several reasons.
First, it could provide important precedent on how courts interpret coaches’ duty to mitigate. Bielema was obligated to undertake “best efforts” in his job search. Such a standard is very subjective and could be shaped by this litigation.
Second, if Bielema’s case advances, it could lead to testimony by Belichick and other Patriots officials about their workplace arrangements with Bielema and other assistant coaches. The Patriots have long operated in a “tight-lipped” manner. Team officials would presumably prefer the case is resolved before their involvement—and sworn testimony—is compelled by subpoena.