Bret Bielema's $7 Million Lawsuit a Further Consequence of Arkansas's Money Mess

The former college coach is suing the Razorback Foundation, magnifying Arkansas's previous poor financial and administrative decisions.
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Bret Bielema vs. the Razorback Foundation is a spitfire lawsuit, spiced with multiple shots at University of Arkansas officials and tactics. It’s also a revealing window into the way schools heedlessly throw millions of dollars at college football problems.

Reading it will have you reaching for the popcorn. And the antacids.

Bielema filed suit Friday asking for $7 million, alleging breach of contract stemming from his buyout agreement after being fired in 2017. The Foundation stopped paying him in January 2019, asserting that Bielema didn’t try hard enough to find post-Arkansas employment, and then didn’t receive a commensurate salary for his duties with the New England Patriots (another job would offset the amount Arkansas owed him). The original buyout figure was $15.4 million, although the university argued that a chart omitted (for whatever reason) from the contract actually placed the buyout around $6 million. The parties eventually agreed on a buyout of just less than $12 million, the bulk of which remains under dispute.

Former Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema in 2017

That’s $12 million for a guy with a 29-34 record, and an 11–29 Southeastern Conference record. And that figure was the driven by a contract renegotiation after a whopping 7–6 season and Texas Bowl victory in 2014.

This is the game for a college football coach: show progress, then leverage that progress (however meager) for more, more, more. You can’t blame them for trying. You can blame athletic directors for routinely caving in.

The all-timer remains the fleecing Charlie Weis gave Notre Dame. Seven games into his tenure in 2005, after a close loss to powerhouse USC, Weis used interest from the NFL—real or manufactured—to land a 10-year deal. Yes, he turned a loss into a gold mine. Notre Dame fired him in 2009 and wound up paying him $19 million thereafter.

But that’s just one of countless examples. Connecticut was so smitten by Bob Diaco’s 6–7 season in 2016—capped off with a loss to Marshall in the St. Petersburg Bowl—that it renegotiated his deal to provide a raise and an increased buyout. Less than a year later, UConn was firing Diaco and paying him $3.4 million to go away.

(That’s a whole lot less than $19 million or $12 million to go away, but Notre Dame and Arkansas have more money to blow than UConn. The Huskies are expected to eliminate multiple sports teams later this month, in no small part because of digging a deficit crater in football.)

The athletic director who renegotiated Bielema’s contract at Arkansas in 2015 was Jeff Long. This is what Long said at the time: “What Coach Bielema and his coaching staff have done for our young men, on and off the field, is something that has dramatically changed the course of our program and most importantly positively impacted the lives of our football student-athletes. He is building a championship program in a way that all Arkansans can be proud of.”

Three seasons later, Bielema was out, at huge cost, and the course of the program was set in the wrong direction—successor Chad Morris was far worse. He was fired after two seasons with a reported buyout of $10 million, payable at a rate of $2.45 million a year. (That was reduced to about $1.7 million once Morris became offensive coordinator at Auburn.)

Next man up is Sam Pittman. At $3 million a year, he’s a bargain by current SEC standards—but he should be, having never been a head coach at a level higher than community college. Pittman’s deal is for five years, and he has a pair of million-dollar coordinators along for the ride as well.

Morris was hired at almost the same time as current Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek. The latter vacancy occurred because Long was fired shortly before Bielema at Arkansas—and guess what? Long had his own buyout, worth a reported $4.6 million. But that was mitigated when Long became the AD at Kansas in July 2018.

Once there, Long set about firing football coach David Beaty. Part of the stated reason for the termination was NCAA violations for using impermissible on-field coaches, which the school used as a means to avoid paying a buyout. But Beaty sued the school for $3 million, and the suit was settled last week—Kansas agreed to pay $2.55 million, after ringing up nearly half a million dollars in legal fees fighting the suit.

Before Bielema, Long hired Bobby Petrino at Arkansas in 2008, which was basically an invitation to be kicked in the teeth by one of the least honorable members of the coaching profession. Sure enough, Petrino delivered, losing his job amid an extramarital scandal that included him hiring his mistress for a football staff position. From the Petrino neck brace onward, Arkansas football has been a mess.

An expensive mess, that could become more costly if Bielema (currently an assistant with the New York Giants) wins his suit. And don’t bet against him—his attorney in this case is Thomas Mars, the renowned bulldog who beat Ole Miss to a pulp over Houston Nutt’s termination several years ago.

Among the blunt instruments Mars used to thump Arkansas in the newly filed suit:

  • A lengthy list of potential college head-coaching jobs that Bielema considered or pursued after being fired. Mars contends that Bielema simply wasn’t considered a hot candidate. “The members of the Foundation’s leadership who assessed and made decisions about whether Coach Bielema had met his obligations under the Final Buyout Agreement turned a blind eye to the easily verifiable reasonable pathways that displaced head coaches have taken to obtain high-paying multi-year head coach contracts at another D-I school. They also ignored and/or made no effort to review highly relevant data about the odds of Coach Bielema being hired in 2018, 2019, or the early part of 2020. Nor did they take into account what’s common knowledge among ADs and search firms: with rare exceptions, a head coach who has been fired for not winning enough games is considered “damaged goods” and drops to the bottom of the candidate pool until he proves he still has what it takes to run a winning program.”
  • The assertion that the Razorback Foundation trumped up its case not to pay Bielema based on what wasn’t in his contract, the omitted buyout chart. “The Foundation’s stubborn adherence to a position of willful blindness was based on a strategy to unlawfully reduce its buyout obligation to the amount the University and the Foundation had planned on paying when they became aware of the multi-million dollar gap between what Coach Bielema’s Final Buyout Agreement actually said and what they wished it said. The methods used by the Foundation in seeking to accomplish this financial objective, and its conscious disregard of information that would have shown its legal position to be frivolous, exemplifies bad faith commercial behavior of the worst kind.”
  • The assertion that the Razorback Foundation leaked information to veteran Arkansas columnist Wally Hall to assist in writing a column saying that Bielema wasn’t entitled to his buyout. “The false information provided to Mr. Hall formed the basis for … statements to be published about Coach Bielema, none of which were true and all of which falsely portrayed him as a person who can’t be trusted to honor his commitments.”

Mars did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. The Razorback Foundation sent a comment to Sports Illustrated Friday night.

“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," said Marshall Ney, counsel for the Razorback Foundation. "It appears that Bielema filed suit in order to avoid being sued.”

If Bielema’s lawsuit proceeds to court and doesn’t hold sway with a jury, it would be a victory for the consistently depleted bank account of the Razorback Foundation. But it still has to finish paying off Morris while also paying Pittman.

Feckless athletic directors (and their bosses in university leadership) can tell you: Bad football and bad contracts cost big money.