Countersuit filed against Bielema

By: Matt Jones , Tom Murphy
Published: Sunday, September 6, 2020
The exterior of the Razorback Foundation office is shown Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
The exterior of the Razorback Foundation office is shown Saturday, Sept. 5, 2020, in Fayetteville.

— The Razorback Foundation filed a countersuit last week against former University of Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema and his agent, Neil Cornrich.

The 52-page countersuit was filed Thursday in federal court for the Western District of Arkansas by Razorback Foundation attorney Marshall S. Ney of the Friday Eldredge & Clark firm. The countersuit claims Bielema and Cornrich conspired to suppress Bielema's income after negotiating a buyout settlement with the foundation.

In June, Bielema's attorneys, led by Tom Mars of Rogers, filed a $7 million lawsuit claiming the Razorback Foundation had breached the terms of a final release agreement that would have paid Bielema more than $11.9 million in monthly payments through 2020. The foundation's motion to dismiss the lawsuit was denied by federal judge P.K. Holmes III on Aug. 20. The lawsuit is on track for a jury trial slated for early next June after weeks of legal wrangling.

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Full coverage of the Bielema lawsuit

The foundation lawsuit requests a trial by jury, compensatory damages of just over $4.5 million (the amount of payments made to Bielema to satisfy the final release agreement), and punitive damages in an amount "to punish and deter the egregious, intentional, and malicious conduct described in this counterclaim."

Cornrich did not respond to a text message Saturday from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette asking for comment on the countersuit.

The foundation claims Bielema and Cornrich "plotted together to conspire" to keep his payments from the New England Patriots in a series of roles in 2018 under the threshold at which the mitigation in his buyout agreement would kick in.

The foundation stopped making monthly payments of $320,833.33 to Bielema after January 2019, claiming he was in breach of contract.

The foundation argues Bielema intentionally failed to seek and obtain other employment that would have offset the monthly buyout payments.

"Thus, [Bielema] had an affirmative duty to seek and obtain a job that maximized his earning potential during the buyout period, not just take a job that built his resume while the Foundation footed the bill," the foundation attorneys wrote. "Despite years of college head coaching experience and three Rose Bowls, Bielema failed to use his best efforts to maximize his earning potential and to reduce the Foundation's payments to him as required under the Release Agreement."

As the Razorbacks' head coach, Bielema had an annual salary of $4.2 million in 2017.

The foundation claims that by the time Bielema's release agreement was executed in January 2018, "Bielema had already brokered a deal with the New England Patriots where he would be making less than the $150,000 threshold amount."

Ney and the foundation attorneys also argue that the agreement with the Patriots legally bound Bielema to a prohibition from fulfilling his duty to mitigate and granted the Patriots "the unilateral right to extend this scheme for an additional year."

The foundation attorneys also argue Bielema failed to provide written summaries of his efforts to find other employment every six months during 2018 as required by his release agreement. In the countersuit, Ney says Bielema received a promotion to an assistant coach position at a salary of $250,000 in April 2019 only after the foundation had served written notice that Bielema was in breach of his contract. Bielema left the Patriots earlier this year to take a job coaching linebackers with the New York Giants.

The foundation cited examples of other fired coaches landing jobs within months, such as former Arkansas coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator at Auburn; fired Florida coach Will Muschamp being hired within one month as defensive coordinator at Auburn at a salary of $1.6 million; and fired Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin being hired at Arizona with a base salary of $2 million.

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