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Ben Volin | On Football

How Bret Bielema’s lawsuit in Arkansas could reveal info the Patriots don’t want out

Bret Bielema was on the Patriots payroll as a consultant and assistant coach — for what the Razorback Foundation says is short money — in 2018-19.
Bret Bielema was on the Patriots payroll as a consultant and assistant coach — for what the Razorback Foundation says is short money — in 2018-19.Michael Woods/Associated Press

Update, March 2, 1:30 p.m.: Patriots emails regarding coach compensation will remain private, Arkansas judge rules

The Patriots, like most NFL teams, operate in a world of privacy. Their books are closed. Their analytics are treated with the importance of nuclear codes. And they certainly don’t disclose how much they pay their coaches.

But that latter curtain of secrecy may soon be lifted thanks to an increasingly nasty lawsuit playing out in Fayetteville, Ark., that has ensnared Bill Belichick, Robert Kraft, and the Patriots.

Judge P.K. Holmes III in the Western District of Arkansas will soon decide whether four emails between Belichick and Kraft in 2018 and 2019 that discuss their coaches’ compensation will become part of the public record. The emails are part of a lawsuit and countersuit between coach Bret Bielema, who spent the 2018 and 2019 seasons with the Patriots after being fired as the University of Arkansas head coach in November 2017, and the Razorback Foundation, the fund-raising arm of the school’s athletic department. The two parties are battling over an $11.935 million buyout.

The foundation argues that Bielema violated the terms of his buyout by taking low-paying employment with the Patriots. The buyout states that the $11.935 million figure would be reduced by earnings Bielema received in subsequent jobs.

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At issue is whether Bielema and his agent satisfied the buyout’s “duty to mitigate” — whether they truly sought to maximize Bielema’s earning potential after he was fired.

Bret Bielema (right) became the Patriots' defensive line coach in 2018, but his salary stayed below the threshold that would allow the Razorback Foundation to stop paying his buyout from Arkansas.
Bret Bielema (right) became the Patriots' defensive line coach in 2018, but his salary stayed below the threshold that would allow the Razorback Foundation to stop paying his buyout from Arkansas.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The four emails between Belichick and Kraft were provided by the Patriots under subpoena in December with the understanding they would be for “attorney’s eyes only.” But they were included in a heavily redacted amended countersuit filed by the foundation Jan. 25, with the foundation arguing “the emails confirm that the Patriots were intimately familiar with the terms of the Release Agreement,” and that “the emails demonstrate that the Patriots paid Bielema less than what he could or should have earned.”

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On Feb. 5, Holmes ruled that the court’s default position is for parties to disclose as much as possible, but he allowed the Patriots to respond before making the emails public. The Patriots argued in a Feb. 23 filing that the emails should be protected by an earlier confidentiality order issued by Holmes, calling it “superfluous” and “gratuitous” that the foundation filed the emails as exhibits.

The Patriots argue that the emails “contain competitively sensitive and personal information — including compensation paid to another member of the team’s coaching staff.”

The Patriots say they “would suffer competitive and commercial harm if this information is made publicly available,” because the 32 NFL teams “compete aggressively with one another to attract and retain the best coaches.”

Bielema and the Razorback Foundation have been wrangling over the buyout since early 2019, when the foundation stopped his monthly payments after paying him approximately $4.55 million. Bielema sued the foundation in June 2020 for the remaining $7 million-plus and punitive damages. The foundation counter-sued to recover the $4.55 million already paid, plus punitive damages.

Also named as Bielema’s co-defendant is agent Neil Cornrich, who represents both Bielema and Belichick. Attorneys for the Patriots, Bielema, and the Razorback Foundation did not respond to requests for comment.

The buyout provision stated that the offsets would kick in only if Bielema earned more than $150,000 in 2018, and more than $125,000 in 2019. Per court filings, Bielema consulted for the Patriots from March to July 2018 for $25,000. He then joined the Patriots as “special assistant to the head coach” from July 2018 through January 2019 for a salary of $100,000, meaning his total compensation for the 2018 season fell just below the offset threshold.

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The foundation argues that Bielema, who also had been head coach at Wisconsin, didn’t genuinely search for high-paid employment, citing that another former Arkansas head coach, Chad Morris, took an offensive coordinator job paying $700,000 per year after being fired by the Razorbacks.

The foundation also argues that:

▪ Bielema’s Patriots contract violated the buyout agreement by expressly forbidding him from seeking employment without the Patriots’ permission.

▪ His contract had a team option for 2019 for $125,000, right at the offset threshold.

▪ Only after it brought up the issue of Bielema’s compensation did the Patriots give him the title of defensive line coach and increase his pay to $250,000, which happened in April 2019.

Bret Bielema took over as head coach at Illinois in December 2020, more than three years after being fired by Arkansas.
Bret Bielema took over as head coach at Illinois in December 2020, more than three years after being fired by Arkansas.Michael Glasgow/Associated Press

Bielema left the Patriots in January 2020, joining the Giants as outside linebackers coach and senior assistant at a $400,000 salary. He was then hired as head coach at Illinois in December 2020, which the foundation notes was the final month of Bielema’s buyout period.

Bielema and Cornrich, meanwhile, argue that they aggressively pursued several Division 1 head coaching jobs in 2018 and 2019, and that working closely with Belichick was a career opportunity that couldn’t be passed up.

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They also argue that:

▪ Belichick did not know about the offset provisions in Bielema’s buyout.

▪ Bielema’s compensation with the Patriots was “fair and reasonable.”

▪ Bielema’s contract with the Patriots allowed him to leave to become a Division 1 head coach at any time.

Bielema’s legal team said that he accepted the $100,000 offer to join the Patriots staff because the “unique role would afford Coach Bielema the opportunity to work closely with the head coach of the winningest NFL team in recent memory.

“This offer was presented to him with the understanding that it was in line with compensation for comparable positions in the Patriots organization,” they argue.

Bielema is not the first coach or executive to be hired by the Patriots for short money while he is owed a larger buyout from his previous job; the list includes executives Michael Lombardi and Elliott Wolf, and coach Matt Patricia. The Patriots are not the only team to utilize this cost-saving tactic.

Bielema’s lawsuit notes that no fuss was made over former Tennessee head coach Butch Jones getting paid $35,000 per year as an “intern/analyst” and “special assistant” at the University of Alabama.


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.