Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema files lawsuit against Razorback Foundation alleging it violated buyout agreement

Dan Wolken

Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema filed a lawsuit in federal court Friday against the private fundraising arm attached to the University of Arkansas athletic department, alleging that the Razorback Foundation violated the buyout agreement that was signed after Bielema was fired in 2017. 

Bielema is seeking $7.025 million in compensatory damages plus punitive damages, pre- and post-judgment interest, attorney fees and court costs as a result of Arkansas’ decision not to pay the full amount of $11.935 million that had been negotiated and agreed upon Jan. 30, 2018. 

At issue is whether Bielema satisfied his obligations under the terms of the agreement to seek other coaching jobs that would have reduced at least part of what he was owed. Such offset language, where the salary of any job taken within the term of the contract is subtracted from the remaining cost of the buyout, is common in college coaching contracts. 

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Bret Bielema coached Arkansas from 2013-17.

Bielema was a consultant/special assistant with the New England Patriots in 2018, was promoted to defensive line coach under Bill Belichick in 2019 and is currently an outside linebackers coach with the New York Giants. All of those contracts included language that would let Bielema out free and clear if he were to accept a Division I head coaching position. 

The lawsuit calls the Razorback Foundation’s decision to void the buyout agreement on Jan. 31, 2019 — which also included a demand that Bielema pay back the $4.235 million he had already collected — a “calculated, bad faith effort to renege on its contractual obligations.” 

The lawsuit includes several examples of correspondence between Bielema’s agent, Neil Cornrich, and various search firm officials about his interest in college head coaching jobs starting soon after he was fired. Interest in Bielema on the college coaching carousel has generally been modest until this past winter, when he was a legitimate candidate for jobs at Colorado and Michigan State.

The lawsuit contends that Bielema’s decision to accept lower-level assistant jobs in the NFL was intended to enhance his experience and attractiveness as a candidate for college programs. 

Part of Arkansas’ rationale for voiding the agreement was an accusation that Bielema’s salary with the Patriots was manipulated so that it would fall within a $150,000 exemption before the offset kicks in. Bielema made $100,000 in his first year with the Patriots, $250,000 last season and is slated to be paid $400,000 with the Giants — salaries that are far below Power Five head coaching jobs but in line with the general market for similar assistant jobs within the NFL, the lawsuit claims. 

Bielema, according to the lawsuit, never informed the Patriots about that exemption and that the Patriots showed no interest in his financial arrangements with Arkansas. 

The language in Bielema’s buyout does not appear to define what kind of jobs Bielema needed to seek to satisfy the agreement. It states: “Bielema shall have an affirmative duty of mitigation to diligently seek and to obtain other employment. Every six (6) months during the life of this Agreement, Bielema shall provide a written summary to the Foundation of his efforts to find other employment.” 

The lawsuit claims the material terms of that clause are “ambiguous and undefined” but that Bielema met them by the standards and customs of the coaching industry. The lawsuit compares Bielema with former Tennessee coach Butch Jones, whose mitigation language was practically identical when he was fired the same year. The lawsuit notes that Jones joined Alabama as an offensive analyst making $35,000 per year but that Tennessee did not deem him in violation of his obligation to mitigate.

Bielema’s legal team alleges that the Razorback Foundation violated a clause in their agreement that requires the parties to work in good faith prior to sending the demand letter on Jan. 31, 2019 that voided the buyout.

“The Foundation deliberately failed to do any research or make any inquiries a reasonable, objective person would make under the circumstances before accusing Coach Bielema of failing to meet his obligation to seek new employment,” the lawsuit states. 

The lawsuit implies that the Razorback Foundation’s stance came about as the result of an initial disagreement about what Bielema’s contract actually said with regard to the buyout. During the 2017 season, when it became clear that Arkansas was thinking about a coaching change, media reports surfaced that Bielema’s buyout was actually $6 million rather than the $15.4 million that had been previously reported. That large gap was the result of differences in language for how to formulate the buyout between Bielema’s initial contract with Arkansas and subsequent extensions. 

The final amount of $11.935 million was negotiated after Arkansas’ decision to fire him had been made and it became clear that Bielema was not going to accept the lower buyout number without litigation. 

Among others, Bielema is being represented by attorney Tom Mars, who previously represented another former Arkansas in Houston Nutt. He sued Ole Miss in 2017, alleging that the school tried to pin its NCAA violations on him through a media smear campaign. That lawsuit was eventually settled. Mars has also represented numerous college athletes seeking immediate eligibility after transferring. He did not return messages seeking comment. 

Razorback Foundation attorney Marshall Ney of the Arkansas-based Friday firm said: “We just received a copy of the complaint at 2:50 CDT from Bret Bielema’s counsel.  It appears that the complaint was provided to the media several hours ago – even before the complaint was accessible on the court’s website.  What I can share at this point before digesting the entire document is that the Foundation previously demanded that Bret Bielema return the $4,555,833.29 that had been paid to him prior to the Foundation’s discovery of his multiple material breaches of the agreement. It appears that Bielema filed suit in order to avoid being sued.”