What Constitutes Good Faith Effort? Bret Bielema’s alleged salary

By: Samuel Wu

For the 2020 season, the average annual salary of a Power 5 college football head coach was $2.7 million.[1] In comparison, the average annual salary of a NFL assistant coach in 2020 was $400,000.[2] Following the 2020 college football season, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini football team hired Bret Bielema as its new head coach, agreeing to a six-year contract with an annual salary of $4.2 million.[3] Bielema’s new job at Illinois is his third college head coaching job, after coaching at the University of Wisconsin from 2006 to 2012 and the University of Arkansas from 2013 to 2017.[4]

In between the end of his tenure at Arkansas and his hiring at Illinois, Bielema moved up to the professional level, serving as an assistant coach for two National Football League teams: The New England Patriots in 2018 and 2019 and then the New York Giants in 2020.[5] When Bielema was at Arkansas, his annual salary was approximately $4.25 million with a contract that lasted through 2020.[6] However, his tenure at Arkansas was cut short, when he was fired in 2017.[7]

In June of 2020, while he was with the Giants, Bielema filed a federal lawsuit against the Arkansas Razorback Foundation (“ARF”), the private fundraising arm attached to the University’s athletic department.[8] In his suit, he alleged that ARF violated the buyout agreement worth $11.936 million.[9] Bielema negotiated and signed the agreement following his firing, and he sought recovery of $7.025 million in damages because of nonpayment.[10] Despite his experience, Bielema reportedly received only $100,000 in his first year with the Patriots.[11] Thus, ARF alleged that Bielema was the one who breached the buyout agreement.[12] While his salary did increase to $250,000 in his second year with the Patriots, his salary significantly lower than his salary at Arkansas and even lower than the average NFL assistant coach salary.[13]

In response, ARF countersued Bielema, arguing that he intentionally violated the buyout’s mitigation clause by negotiating a low salary.[14] The mitigation clause provided that Bielema had to use his “best efforts” to land another job and then to negotiate a maximum salary, with the new salary offsetting any payments ARF had to make.[15] However, the contract did not require him to pursue any specified occupation.[16] Therefore, Bielema argued that the buyout clause was “ambiguous and undefined.”[17] Bielema cited the buyout agreement between the University of Tennessee and former head coach Butch Jones, stating that the “mitigation language [of the buyout] was practically identical.”[18] Jones reportedly received only $35,000 per year in his new position as an offensive analyst at the University of Alabama.[19]

Based off recent filings in early March, it was discovered that the Patriots’ assistant coaches without any NFL experience get paid as low as $15,000 to $65,000 per year.[20] In the filings, the Patriots believed that they overpaid Bielema in order to avoid this type of litigation, and that because he lacked NFL experience, the salary was more than fair.[21] On the other hand, ARF argued that despite the lack of experience at the NFL level, he had more than enough experience to find a higher paying college football assistant job and that he intentionally “took himself off the [college football] job market.”[22] Currently, the trial is set for January 10, 2022.[23]

If the parties do not settle, it will be interesting to see how the court will rule on this buyout term. The main issues are (1) what constitutes “best efforts” when a fired coach seeks a new position and (2) what is a “competitive salary.” This case will not only affect coaches when searching for a new job, but also future employers, who have to decide what is a fair salary when hiring coaches and drafting buyout provisions. What is also interesting is that despite Bielema’s new job with Illinois, the case has not been declared moot, as the buyout provided that any new salaries he received were supposed to offset ARF’s payments. As college football head coaches continue to be compensated at a high level, college football programs should keep watch of this case to determine what would be a properly drafted buyout clause. 

[1] Steve Berkowitz & Tom Schad, 5 Surprising Findings from College Football Coaches Salaries Report, USA Today (Oct. 15, 2020, 9:27 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2020/10/14/college-football-coaches-salaries-five-surprising-findings-data/5900066002/.

[2] Sarah Midkiff, Wait, NFL Coaches Make How Much?, Yahoo! (Feb. 2, 2020), https://finance.yahoo.com/news/wait-nfl-coaches-much-162011974.html.

[3] Ben Kercheval, Illinois hires Bret Bielema, signing former Wisconsin and Arkansas coach to six-year deal, CBS Sports (Dec. 19, 2020, 9:45 AM), https://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/illinois-hires-bret-bielema-signing-former-wisconsin-and-arkansas-coach-to-six-year-deal/.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Tim Daniels, Bret Bielema, Arkansas Agree to New Contract: Latest Details and Reaction, Bleacher Report (Feb. 7, 2015), https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2357330-bret-bielema-arkansas-agree-to-new-contract-latest-details-and-reaction?embedded=true&sic=cnn-app.

[7] Alex Scarborough, Bret Bielema fired as Arkansas’ head coach after loss to Mizzou, ESPN

[8] Dan Wolken, Former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema files lawsuit against Razorback Foundation alleging it violated buyout agreement, USA Today (June 12, 2020, 6:18 PM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaaf/2020/06/12/bret-bielema-ex-arkansas-coach-files-lawsuit-over-buyout-agreement/3178745001/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Michael McCann, Bielema Countersued by Arkansas Foundation Claiming Belichick’s Agent Kept Salary Low, Sportico (Sept. 4, 2020, 9:00 AM), https://www.sportico.com/law/analysis/2020/razorback-foundation-patriots-1234612721/.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Wolken, supra note 8.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Michael McCann, Belichick Overpaid Bielema to Avoid Arkansas Salary Fight, Filing Says, Sportico (Mar. 8, 2021, 5:33 PM), https://www.sportico.com/law/analysis/2021/bill-belichick-robert-kraft-emails-1234624352/

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Tom Murphy, Bielema trial delayed until 2022, Ark. Democrat-Gazette (Feb. 18, 2021), https://www.wholehogsports.com/news/2021/feb/18/bielema-trial-delayed-until-2022/.