Keyshawn Johnson on his time with Jon Gruden: ‘He's a bad guy. And he's a fraud.'

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Flashback time. It was 2003, early in the season. I’m sitting in the front passenger seat of Keyshawn Johnson’s car, parked outside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers complex that players call “One Buc Place.”

We talked for roughly an hour after practice, in what was at the time, largely an off-the-record conversation. The star receiver on a team defending a Super Bowl championship, Johnson vented hard about his relationship with his coach, Jon Gruden, and told me that he had reached a point of no return.

He wanted out. Johnson had just put his house on the market, despite having several years remaining on the eight-year, $56 million extension that made him the NFL’s highest-paid receiver.  

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He summed up his beef with Gruden that day as follows: I want to strangle him.

This was a few years after the NBA suspended Warriors guard Latrell Sprewell for a year  after attacking his coach, P.J. Carlesimo, during an altercation at practice.

“Yeah, I wanted to strangle that (expletive),” Johnson told USA TODAY Sports this week, reflecting in the aftermath of Gruden’s resignation from the Raiders. “That (expletive) tried to make people think I was a true problem, man. That (stuff) was crazy to me. It was like he went out of his way at times to make people have a certain narrative about who I was.

“It’s almost like he deliberately thought he was going to take the love of the game away from me … like that was his mission, to try to hurt me and ruin my career. That’s what it felt like he was really trying to do. That wasn’t going to happen. He (messed) with the wrong dude.”

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Johnson’s tenure with the Bucs ended when Gruden deactivated him (with pay) for the final seven games of the 2003 season and the new GM, Bruce Allen, who at the time succeeded Rich McKay but is now better known his email exchanges with Gruden, swung a trade with the Dallas Cowboys the next spring that reunited the receiver with Bill Parcells.

It is hardly surprising that Johnson, for years a high-profile national broadcaster and currently the co-host of a popular show on ESPN Radio, hasn’t pulled punches in assessing Gruden’s downfall. No player had a dispute with the ex-coach that was as public as the rift with Johnson, the former No. 1 overall pick the Bucs had obtained from the New York Jets two years before Gruden replaced an ousted Tony Dungy.

© Rainier Ehrhardt, AP Keyshawn Johnson called Jon Gruden a “fraud” and compared him to a used car salesman during his ESPN morning radio show.

Gruden resigned on Monday with his reputation destroyed after leaked emails stemming from an investigation of the workplace culture of the Washington Football Team, exposed racist, misogynistic and homophobic rants by the ex-coach, in addition to other vulgar assertions that attacked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Bucs owners, during exchanges with Allen, formerly Washington’s president.

“I never take a thrill watching somebody’s demise,” Johnson maintained. “That’s not for me to judge. But he didn’t fool me. He fooled everybody else. I’ve been telling people for 20 years, ‘He’s a bad guy. And he’s a fraud.

“Think about it, man. When you sat in that car with me, how (ticked) I was. This was after our Super Bowl and I didn’t want to be around this dude, didn’t want to be a part of him because I saw how he treated people.”

The fallout for Gruden included the Bucs removing him from the team’s Ring of Honor at Raymond James Stadium. That likely would have happened even if it wasn’t revealed in the emails, reported by The New York Times, that Gruden suggested to Allen that the Glazers to perform oral sex on him.

The leaked emails, with the initial blast reported by The Wall Street Journal, when Gruden disparaged NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith in a racially-tinged tirade in 2011, came from a trove of 650,000 emails collected as part of the investigation into alleged sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct with Washington’s franchise.

You’re sitting there smiling in their face,” Johnson said, speaking of the Glazers. “They gave you a Ring of Honor (ceremony) and you want them to (perform oral sex)? And then Bruce Allen talking about, ‘They probably would.’ This goes back to the fraudulent behavior. You know how they do investigations on players when they go to interview them at the combine? They didn’t do no investigation on his ass.”

Johnson’s disconnect with Gruden began as a football issue stemming from how he was used in the team’s offense. It morphed into a personal issue between two strong-willed personalities that involved classic relationship pitfalls that included mistrust, disrespect, ego and power.

“All I wanted to do was play football, be happy, win games,” Johnson said. “But he wanted to turn it into a power struggle and pissing match.”

© SCOTT AUDETTE, Associated Press Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson stiff arms Green Bay Packers linebacker Na’il Diggs on Nov. 24, 2002 in Tampa, Fla.

Interestingly, Johnson said that at the time he did not view his differences with Gruden as related to race.

“His bigotry? That behavior? I never saw that,” Johnson allowed. “I could never say that the dude was a racist. But I saw how (messed) up he was and how he treated people. That was a bigger issue with me than anything. Just lying to be lying…not being authentic but being problematic. That was an issue when you try to make everybody believe I was the issue and had people believing that (stuff).”

In retrospect, Johnson believes there were indeed racial overtones associated with his rift.

“A coach who is white, against a Black player, for the most part is always going to get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to proving their point because white America wants to listen to the white guy,” Johnson asserts. “White media wants to listen to the white guy, even though I had a bunch of white media friends, like, ‘Yeah, we see the dude.’ But in the end, he could say anything and they would write it because they would believe him based on him winning a Super Bowl.”

Agree with him or not, there’s no dispute that Johnson, who wrote a book titled, “Just Give Me the Damn Ball” after his rookie season, is hardly shy about voicing his opinions. That always made him more human in an environment where many players are so often programmed to avoid deep expressions about hot-button issues.

In light of what’s been exposed recently about Gruden’s opinions, particularly as it relates to race, Johnson says that he can connect the dots to see a pattern. He mentioned that Gruden had just one Black coordinator, Willie Shaw (1998-99), during his head coaching stints and bemoaned that after Gruden returned to the Raiders in 2018, GM Reggie McKenzie, an African-American, was fired and replaced by Mike Mayock, who was widely respected as a draft analyst for the NFL Network but had no previous experience with an NFL team.

“He fired Reggie McKenzie to bring in a white dude that ain’t never ever, ever, ever been in a front office,” Johnson said. “You want to connect the dots even more? Think about who he was sending emails to. Bruce Allen, whose brother George was the Governor of Virginia who had the racial epithet . The apple doesn’t fall too far from that tree. You start to put everything together and that’s who he is.”

Listening to Johnson, speaking from Los Angeles, and it’s a lot like sitting next to him in his car outside One Buc Place nearly 20 years ago.

“I can’t take joy watching him fall from the mountaintop,” Johnson insists. “That ain’t in my blood. As much as I despise him, I’m not the judge.”

Regardless, it’s a good thing that Johnson never strangled his former coach.

Jon Gruden during his final game as Las Vegas Raiders head coach, a 20-9 defeat to the Chicago Bears at Allegiant Stadium on Oct. 10, 2021. Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden reacts following a penalty in the second half against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High on Dec. 29, 2019. Jon Gruden celebrates with fans after a 26-24 win over the Los Angeles Chargers at Oakland Coliseum on Nov. 7, 2019. Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden and an NFL Films cameraman filming for the HBO series “Hard Knocks” during training camp on July 29, 2019, in Napa, California. Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden talks with team owner Mark Davis during an NBA game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs in Oakland, Calif., on March 8, 2018. Oakland Raiders new head coach Jon Gruden poses for photographs next to owner Mark Davis (left) and general manager Reggie McKenzie during his introduction press conference on Jan. 9, 2018. ESPN broadcaster and former NFL head coach Jon Gruden walks with his brother, Washington Redskins head coach Jay Gruden, after practice at the team’s training facility in Richmond, Virginia, on July 25, 2014. Jon Gruden runs onto the field as the Buccaneers honor their 2002 Super Bowl-winning team on Dec. 9, 2012. ESPN analyst Jon Gruden during the 2011 NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on April 28, 2011. ESPN broadcaster Jon Gruden before a game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills in Foxborough, Mass., on Sept. 14, 2009. Jon Gruden grimaces as he speaks to the media during his weekly news conference on Dec. 29, 2008 in Tampa, Fla. The Buccaneers lost to the Oakland Raiders 31-24 in the season finale, finishing the season at 9-7 and out of the playoffs. He was fired by the Buccaneers after the 2008 season. Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden holds up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after winning Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Oakland Raiders at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA on Jan. 26, 2003. Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden is doused by players Derrick Brooks (left) and John Lynch (47) after the Bucs defeated the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, in Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego on Jan. 26, 2003. Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden shouts during his team’s 16-13 overtime loss in the “Tuck Rule” game against the New England Patriots in the AFC divisional playoffs in Foxboro, Mass. on Jan. 19, 2002. Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden and kicker Sebastian Janikowski (11) celebrate the Raiders’ 27-0 win over the Miami Dolphins during the final moments of the AFC divisional playoff game at the Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Jan. 6, 2001. Jon Gruden smiles as he is introduced as the new Oakland Raiders head coach at a news conference on Jan. 27, 1998. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Rodney Peete talks with offensive coordinator Jon Gruden during practice on Aug. 7, 1997 at Eagles training camp in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Philadelphia Eagles QB Randall Cunningham and offensive coordinator Jon Gruden talk strategy during training camp on July 26, 1995.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Keyshawn Johnson on his time with Jon Gruden: ‘He’s a bad guy. And he’s a fraud.’

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