The legal battle between New York Giants assistant coach Bret Bielema and the Razorback Foundation has escalated.
On Thursday, Bielema filed an amended complaint, accusing the Foundation of attempting to mislead U.S. District Judge Paul Holmes about Bielema’s employment with the New England Patriots from 2018 to ’20. The filing comes on the heels of the Foundation’s insistence that Bielema and his agent “conspired to suppress” his Patriots compensation.
As previously detailed by Sportico, Bielema has sued the Foundation for more than $7 million. He maintains that the nonprofit, which supports Arkansas Athletics, breached the terms of a $12 million buyout agreement signed in 2018.
Bielema, who led the Razorbacks to a 29–34 record from 2013 to ’17, negotiated the buyout with the Foundation after he was fired in November of 2017 in hopes of amicably resolving any outstanding issues.
It didn’t work out.
The legal dispute centers on Bielema’s subsequent employment with the Patriots, for whom he held several roles. The Foundation maintains that Bielema accepted below-market pay because the Foundation would be obligated to cover the difference. From that perspective, the Foundation argues it subsidized Bielema’s employment with the Patriots.
Understanding the buyout and the carveout
The buyout agreement placed assorted requirements on Bielema. The two most significant: (1) get a new job and (2) get paid an industry-normal salary for that job.
As to the first requirement, Bielema had “an affirmative duty of mitigation to diligently seek and to obtain other employment.” To be clear, Bielema was not obligated to pursue, or take on, any particular occupation. Likewise, he wasn’t required to seek jobs that pay well. Bielema merely had to “diligently” try to get another job.
The second core requirement related to the buyout’s structure. Within parameters, Bielema’s compensation from a new job would offset money owed to him by the Foundation. The Foundation, however, agreed to pay Bielema specific amounts, regardless of earnings—this was a “carveout.” He’d be paid $150,000 over the last two months of 2017; $150,000 in ’18; $125,000 in ’19; and $100,000 in ’20. If Bielema earned more than those amounts, the excess would be deducted from the Foundation’s outstanding tab.
Bielema’s amended complaint describes the alleged genesis of the carveout. According to the document, Bielema told Scott Varady, executive director of the Foundation, that he had been approached about doing TV work for low pay. Varady, according to Bielema’s retelling, agreed to the carveout.
The carveout nonetheless set up conflicting incentives. The Foundation wanted Bielema to land the highest-paying job possible since his earnings would reduce the Foundation’s bill. Bielema, in contrast, was motivated to pursue the best job for his career and life. He had the certainty of payments from Arkansas.
To address that conflict, the buyout obligated Bielema to “use his best efforts to maximize his potential earning with the new employer consistent with compensation rates for similar positions in the given industry.” The phrase “best efforts” is crucial since it set the standard expected of Bielema; it is also subjective and imprecise.
Bielema’s three jobs with the Patriots: Pay and restrictions
Shortly after Bielema’s firing, the Patriots approached him about helping assess prospects for the 2018 NFL draft as an independent contractor. As a seasoned football expert and a recent Southeastern Conference coach, he was familiar with draft-eligible players and also had close ties to the Patriots. His agent, Neil Cornrich, represents New England head coach Bill Belichick.
The Patriots agreed to pay Bielema a $25,000 fee for about seven weeks of pre-draft consulting. According to attorneys for Bielema, there was an understanding that Bielema could opt out at any time, without penalty, to accept a Division I head coaching position.
Although his tenure at Arkansas was unsuccessful, Bielema remained a credible D-I coaching candidate. At 47, an age where many coaches excel, he was considered a rising star only a handful of years earlier. From 2006 to ’12, Bielema coached the University of Wisconsin to a 68–24 record. In 2010 he was named a finalist for the Bear Bryant Award as the best coach in college football.
After the draft, the Patriots offered Bielema an appealing job: special assistant to Belichick, the most successful football coach of the modern era and winner of eight Super Bowls- six with the Patriots and two with the New York Giants. The offer was for $100,000, or $50,000 less than the carveout’s 2018 threshold.
Attorneys for Bielema claim the $100,000 salary “was in line with compensation for comparable positions in the Patriots organization.” The Foundation flatly disagrees. In a court filing obtained by Sportico, the Foundation calls the salary “well-below-market.” It further asserts that “Bielema and his agent conspired to suppress Bielema’s compensation during the buy-out term.”
Bielema’s special assistant job included, according to his attorneys, a continued understanding that he could leave to accept a D-I head coaching position. The Foundation disputes this assertion, arguing that the contract “prohibited him from accepting any other employment during the term of the agreement, while also giving the Patriots the unilateral right to extend the agreement for an additional year.”
The disagreement is important. The Foundation calls it “egregious” that Bielema would sign a contract that allegedly “bound himself to a prohibition from fulfilling his affirmative duty of mitigation” and would give the Patriots a right to “extend this scheme” for another year.
Bielema’s camp rejects that suspicion. They note the prohibition contained an explicit exception: Bielema could pursue other employment with Belichick’s permission. Two other Patriots assistant coaches, Bill O’Brien (Penn State) and Charlie Weiss (Notre Dame), used this exception to leave New England.
From the complaint: In keeping with Coach Belichick’s longstanding policy of supporting coaches who had had opportunities to be head coaches at the collegiate level, the Patriots did not attempt to restrict or penalize Coaches O’Brien and Weis when they accepted offers to become head coaches at DI schools. In fact, the Patriots provided them with a separate office and dedicated a Patriots employee to help them handle phone calls and mail related to their new college head coach positions.
While a Patriots employee, Bielema was under varying degrees of consideration for several D-I head coaching positions. Colorado, Michigan State, Florida Atlantic University, Boston College, the University of South Florida and Rutgers all reportedly considered Bielema. None hired him.
In April 2019, two months after the Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII, the team promoted Bielema to assistant coach. In this new role, he assumed additional responsibilities, including coaching defensive linemen. The promotion came with a substantial increase in annual salary to $250,000. However, Bielema did not “net” most of the raise. Per his buyout, any income over $125,000 in ’19 merely reduced the amount owed by the Foundation.
Attorneys for the Foundation highlight the promotion came with contractual language explicitly allowing Bielema to accept other employment- a change, they say, from his contract as a special assistant. Attorneys for Bielema call that argument misleading since it ignores the fact that Belichick could grant his assistant permission to leave.
Should the litigation advance, factual discrepancies would serve as key topics for witness testimony. Patriots officials, including Belichick, could become witnesses. The team might also be compelled to turn over records. The Patriots are portrayed as gaining from what the Foundation describes as an unlawful ruse to suppress wages. Bielema rejects that insinuation. His attorneys maintain the carveout was never “disclosed to Coach Belichick or anyone else in the Patriots organization.”
Was Bielema’s arrangement with the Patriots fishy?
Sportico spoke with two agents who represent football coaches. They offered contrasting opinions about Bielema’s Patriots compensation.
One emphasized that NFL teams pay different rates for coaches and staff. The agent also noted that joining a Belichick coaching staff is professionally advantageous. The agent added, “Two words: Butch Jones.” Jones, who was fired from Tennessee in 2017, is reportedly collecting more than $8 million as part of a buyout that extends until 2021. Jones, meanwhile, reportedly earns just $35,000 a year as a member of Nick Saban’s Alabama staff. The agent suggested that if Tennessee is content with Jones joining a rival SEC school, then Arkansas should be comfortable with Bielema coaching in the non-rival NFL.
The other agent was more skeptical of Bielema’s compensation from the Patriots. “Seems a little low,” the agent opined.
The case is a long way from resolution. Attorneys for the Foundation claim not only that Bielema’s arguments have no merit but that a different court has jurisdiction over the dispute.