White participates in executive diversity program

Sheldon White has been an NFL General Manager in the past. He was the interim GM for the Detroit Lions for the final eight games of the 2015 season.

Having ascended to that position once already in his life, White knows he has what it takes to do the job. But he also knows that there are a lot of people out there just like him who also can do so.

That's why White's participation in the NFL's Front Office Accelerator program recently was so important. The Steelers' Director of Pro Scouting took part in the program at league meetings in early December in Dallas as one of 32 participants representing 28 franchises.

This was the second accelerator program the league held in 2022. The NFL also held a program at its meetings in Atlanta in May, with more than 60 coaching and front office participants taking part.

"Some of it was new, but not as new for me because I had been an interim general manager before, so I had been to management council meetings before, I had sat in owners meetings before, so some of that for me was a recalibration of some time away," White said. "You're able to see what happens behind the scenes and see how they're growing the operation outside of your own little world of personnel. We were able to have some views on what's going on around the league beyond what's going on in your area of expertise, with different sessions and those type of things."

The Front Office Accelerator was instituted by the NFL to provide rising people of color and women front office prospects with the opportunity to strengthen relationships with club ownership and executives. Additionally, the NFL has curated content sessions with football operations experts and business and academic leaders to further drive participants' success in future front-office opportunities.

White, 57, was an ideal candidate to take part in the program. After his six-year playing career as a defensive back with the Giants, Lions and Bengals, ended in 1993, the self-described "football junkie" was looking for a way to stay in the game he loved.

He had offers to use his finance degree from Miami (Ohio) in positions with Dayton Power and Light, where he had interned during the offseason in his final two seasons as a player, and the Federal Reserve, but when his college coach, Terry Hoeppner, called about a coaching job, he jumped at the opportunity.

He did so, even though he was being asked to coach wide receivers, not defensive backs.

So, White called another of his former coaches, Detroit's Wayne Fontes, and asked for some guidance.

"I called up Wayne Fontes. I said, 'Wayne, I'm a former DB. I haven't played receiver since high school. They're asking me to go to a D-1 level and coach receivers. I haven't coached receivers or played it since high school,'" White said. "Lucky for, (former Saints coach) Sean Payton got hired the same day. I was coaching receivers and he was coaching quarterbacks. But really, he was coaching both while he was introducing me on how to coach and all of that."

But White knew he still needed more knowledge, so he called Fontes again and asked about doing a coaching internship with the Lions during the offseason. Those spots had already been filled, but Fontes offered an internship in the scouting department working under Ron Hughes, who would later join the Steelers' scouting department. The idea was that White could work with the scouts throughout the day and sit in on coaching meetings at night.

He did that, but he also caught the eye of Hughes. Though he didn't have an opening for a scout right away, when Hughes finally had a spot open up, White, still coaching at Miami, was his first call.

"The first opening they had, they hired me," White said. "That was when Rick Spielman left Detroit for Director of Pro Personnel in Chicago with the Bears. They had one opening. They hired me as an entry-level scout."

That didn't last long. White quickly went from being the team's BLESTO scout to area scout to working in the pro scouting department under Kevin Colbert. And when Colbert left to become GM of the Steelers a year later, White was elevated to fill his position as Director of Pro Personnel.

"(Colbert) sat Charlie Sanders and I down for about five hours and grilled us on what to do," White recalled. "His whole shelf was full of books and he was pulling them out and showing them to us. I had been working under him as the assistant pro guy. All of a sudden, here's the whole deal. Ronnie Hughes said, 'You're the director now.'"

So, White has worked at all different levels within the game. He played it at the highest level. He coached at the NCAA Division I level and then scouted at both the collegiate and pro levels.

"I remember talking to my wife and saying, 'I don't know quite what I want to do now, but they're kind of telling me I must be pretty good at this. So I'm going to ride this out and see where it goes,' White said. "It took me all the way to the interim general manager job, the VPs and all of that. Over the course of my career, I've negotiated contracts all the way to the second round. Part of my job was operations. I've been to the owners meetings. I've pretty much been a jack-of-all-trades guy in the personnel department, being able to handle and do different things in different areas. That's how I ended up in it. Once you're in it, you just love it."

Like many of those positions around the league, things can end. White's came after that 2015 season in Detroit, despite the Lions going 6-2 under his watch in the second half of that season. A new GM was hired and White moved on, getting hired by Michigan State University, first as a consultant and then Executive Director of Player Personnel and Recruiting.

But returning to the NFL was always on his mind.

During his time at Michigan State, he went to the NFL Scouting Combine in an effort to see if he could facilitate that.

"I'm looking around. I've got my .750 winning percentage. I'm feeling pretty good about my A game," White said. "Then I'm like, 'Oh, there's Scott Pioli, a two-time winner of the Super Bowl. He's not in the NFL right now. There's Jerry Reese, two-time Super Bowl winner. There's Ray Farmer, Doug Whaley. There were six or seven guys that had resumes that were similar or better than mine that would love to be working in the NFL. I look at it that way."

Being a realist, White knew he wanted to get back into the NFL, but jumping right back into a GM position was not likely in the cards. So, he accepted a job in 2021 as a pro scout with the Washington Commanders under his former boss in Detroit, Martin Mayhew. 

And when Colbert retired after the 2021 season, the Steelers had a number of openings in their scouting department. White was hired as the Director of Pro Scouting under new GM Omar Khan.

White still would like to be a GM again. But he's going to rise to that position by helping Khan be the best he can be.

"I always told (Mayhew), 'My job as an understudy is to become as qualified as possible for that job, so I can help you do yours.' I always told him, 'I don't want your job. I want to do so well here that they're hiring everyone in the building from here. If I want it, I can get it somewhere else. You're here and you're going to be here for a long time. I'm just one of your disciples who have done well under you,'" White said. "The only way I can do that is to bust my tail and become as qualified as possible and help you make the best decisions."

He's taken the same tact with Khan.

White has a great deal of respect for how Steelers president and owner Art Rooney II runs the team and how head coach Mike Tomlin goes about his business, as well. He's learning all he can while also helping Khan as much as he can.

"My dad was an MP in the Army, so I always followed that rule. Here's the guy and you're under him. If you have some suggestions, give them to him. Make sure you're in sync coming up. That's the way I'm wired," White said. "The more I know about the Pittsburgh Steelers, the way Mike Tomlin runs his team, the way Omar wants it done, the culture here, the more stuff I learn on being a GM-type, then I can help Omar make decisions. 

"That's the way I've always looked at it. Do I have aspirations to do that? Absolutely. There are only 32 of those jobs in the world. But don't be the guy trying to cut trying to get there. I've always felt, too, that there are so many people racing to the top, but to me, you've got to build the best base you can build."