FAYETTEVILLE — Attorneys for former University of Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema filed an amended lawsuit last week, disputing the Razorback Foundation’s arguments that Bielema’s civil suit against the foundation should be thrown out of federal court.
The Razorback Foundation asked U.S. District Court Judge P.K. Holmes III to dismiss Bielema’s original federal lawsuit on June 26, claiming disputes between Bielema and the foundation were contractually intended to be settled in Washington County Circuit Court. Holmes ordered moot that motion for dismissal Monday because the amended lawsuit supersedes the original suit.
Wording in Bielema’s 2018 negotiated buyout agreement with the foundation states: “Washington County, Arkansas, shall be the exclusive venue for any action arising under or relating to the Agreement.”
The U.S. District Court of Western Arkansas has an office in Fayetteville, which is in Washington County. Bielema's attorneys claim that court is a proper venue for the lawsuit because Bielema now resides in a different state and because the amount in dispute is more than $75,000.
Attorney Thomas A. Mars, who is one of six attorneys representing Bielema, wrote in the amended lawsuit that Bielema intended to move to another state at the time he negotiated his final buyout and was “fully aware that the venue selection clause would, therefore, allow him to litigate any disputes in either state or federal court. This choice of venue was material to Coach Bielema, and he relied on it in entering into the Final Buyout Agreement.”
Previous agreements between Bielema and the foundation stated Washington County Circuit Court would settle disputes that arose during the buyout period.
According to the settlement agreed to in January 2018, Bielema was to be paid up to $11.935 million in severance, subject to offsetting mitigation, through December 2020.
Claiming breach of contract, the Razorback Foundation ceased payments to Bielema in January 2019 and demanded he repay more than $4 million he’d already been paid.
Attorneys for Bielema filed the original lawsuit on June 12, demanding $7.025 million in compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages, attorney fees, court costs and a jury trial.
Bielema’s attorneys characterize the foundation as being “so intertwined with every aspect of the University’s Athletics Department that it functions as an arm of the Athletics Department.” The lawsuit and amendment suit also claims UA athletics director Hunter Yurachek appeared to be the “driving force” behind the foundation’s decision to stop making payments to Bielema, based on Yurachek’s on-the-record criticism of high-dollar buyouts.
“(C)onsidering the incestuous relationship between the Athletics Department and the Foundation, it is inconceivable that the Foundation would have stopped making the monthly buyout payments and threatened Coach Bielema with a multi-million dollar lawsuit unless Mr. Yurachek was either the architect of that plan or unequivocally expressed his support for it,” the lawsuit states.
In its motion to dismiss, the foundation claims its independence from the UA and that it is not a state agency. But it also argues that if Bielema’s characterization is true, the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution would prohibit federal court from hearing the case.
“Accepting for the moment the truth of the Foundation’s assertions…a money judgment in favor of Coach Bielema will not have any effect on the State of Arkansas’ treasury, and the University is not the real party of interest in this case,” Bielema’s attorneys countered in the amended lawsuit.
The amended suit also pushes back at the Razorback Foundation’s claim that Bielema was ineligible to be hired as a college head coach while serving as a special assistant on the New England Patriots’ staff during the 2018 season.
In its motion to dismiss, the Razorback Foundation claims Bielema’s agreement with the Patriots included a provision that prohibited him from accepting any other employment for the duration of his six-month contract with New England, and allowed the Patriots the unilateral ability to extend Bielema’s role and employment bar for up to 12 additional months.
But in the amended suit, Bielema’s attorneys say the Patriots “reaffirmed their agreement that Coach Bielema could end his contractual relationship with the Patriots at any time to accept a DI head coach position” prior to Bielema signing the agreement on July 15, 2018.
“There was nothing unusual about the understanding reached between Coach Bielema and the Patriots regarding his freedom to leave the Patriots without penalty to accept a head coach position at a DI school,” the amended suit states. “NFL contracts with restrictions on seeking or accepting other employment are intended to align with NFL rules and policies that, until May 2020, strictly prohibited an NFL team from ‘tampering with’ the coaching staff of another NFL team.
“For the Patriots, those contractual provisions are not intended to restrict coaches from leaving to take head coach positions in college football.”
The amended suit cites former New England coordinators Charlie Weis and Bill O’Brien leaving the team for college head coaching positions. Weis was hired as head coach at Notre Dame in 2004, and O’Brien was hired by Penn State in 2012.
Bielema was paid $125,000 by the Patriots in the year after he was fired by Arkansas. He was paid $25,000 for seven weeks of consulting work around the time of the NFL Draft, and $100,000 as a special assistant to Belichick between July 2018 and January 2019.
The foundation stopped making payments to Bielema on Jan. 31, 2019, three days before the Patriots defeated the Los Angeles Rams 13-3 in the Super Bowl. In its letter to Bielema, the foundation said Bielema “made no efforts, diligent or otherwise, to obtain replacement employment of the same or similar character.”
As the Razorbacks' head coach, Bielema had an annual salary of $3.45 million in his final season. He was fired at the conclusion of a 4-8 campaign in 2017.
In five seasons at Arkansas, Bielema had a 29-34 overall record and 11-29 record in SEC games.
Bielema’s attorneys say that shortly after he was fired by Arkansas, Bielema personally inquired about openings at Arizona State and Nebraska, and his agent, Neil Cornrich, contacted a search firm assisting Arizona’s coaching search.
The lawsuit states neither Bielema nor his agent were contacted by any schools during the offseason that followed the 2018 season, but that he was involved in searches in the past year at Rutgers, Colorado, Michigan State, Baylor, South Florida, Boston College and Florida Atlantic. Bielema interviewed with athletics directors at Rutgers and Colorado, according to the amended lawsuit.
In the time between when he was fired in November 2017 and when he settled his buyout agreement with the foundation two months later, the amended suit states Bielema had discussions with representatives of “several” TV networks about becoming an on-air football analyst with an understood six-figure salary of up to $150,000.
The amended suit states Cornrich proposed to Razorback Foundation executive director Scott Varady that $150,000 should be exempt from Bielema’s mitigation clause in the first year of his buyout agreement, and Varady agreed in principle.
Bielema’s salary exempt from mitigation was to fall to $125,000 in his second year of buyout payments, and to $100,000 this year.
In April 2019, Bielema was promoted to a full-time assistant coaching role with New England that paid him $250,000 per year. He was hired by the New York Giants as defensive line coach earlier this year at a salary of $400,000.
In addition to Mars of Rogers, Bielema is being represented by attorneys R. Craig Wood and Benjamin P. Abel of Charlottesville, Va.; John C. Everett of Farmington; John E. Tull of Little Rock; and Ryan K. Culpepper of Hot Springs.
Attorneys Marshall S. Ney, Robert W. George, Katherine C. Campbell and Blake Z. Brizzolara of Rogers are listed as counsel for the Razorback Foundation.