Lions' White: Winning is best way to remove 'interim' label

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Sheldon White walked around Lions headquarters after owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford promoted him to interim general manager last Thursday.

Knowing the other Lions employees would have questions about both the immediate and long-term future, White considered holding a meeting, but instead, tried to alleviate concerns individually.

“I did not want to have an emergency meeting and sit down and talk to everyone about everything’s OK,” White said Thursday. “It’s not OK. We have to win.”

White’s move that day was the first of many he’ll make over the next two months — or beyond. This is his first experience as a general manager, and in his 25-minute news conference Thursday, he made it clear he’ll try to run the Lions his way and hope that it’s right.

Showing incredible self-awareness, White said Thursday he has the same duties as Martin Mayhew before he was fired last week, but the interim tag is there for a reason. And Ford made that clear when she informed him of the promotion last week.

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“She told me she’s hiring me as the interim general manager, but the reality of it is this isn’t a Supreme Court Justice appointment,” he said at team headquarters. “The only person with a lifetime appointment in this building is our owner. And so, the way I look at everybody, we’re all interim general managers, we’re interim coaches, we’re interim players. It’ll eventually be over, and we’re telling stories. Some have more rope than others.”

If White hopes to extend his rope and become a candidate to be the permanent general manager, the goal for the next eight weeks is simple.

“I can tell you the best way to be a candidate is to win these games,” he said. “Obviously, if we don’t, then I won’t be a candidate. But if we win these games and we find ways to get better and improve our roster, maybe I will be.”

Included in White’s new responsibility is total control over the football operations. He said Jon Dykema, the team’s general counsel, will now have more oversight with the salary cap — president Tom Lewand also was fired last week — and there will be other “subtle changes” to the organization with the firing of three assistant coaches in recent weeks.

Although he reports directly to Ford, White said he’ll have the freedom to sign Lions players to extensions with the consult of coach Jim Caldwell and interim chief operating officer Allison Maki. White made it clear he’s in regular contact with Ford now and alerted her to his first player acquisition — claiming defensive tackle C.J. Wilson Monday — as well as a practice squad transaction Tuesday.

White, 50, said the best way to win games is to take things day by day, but during his address, he shared some reasons to think he’s ready for this current venture.

As Mayhew’s right-hand man the past few years, White said he had total autonomy to run the organization when Mayhew was out of the building, whether the former GM was scouting players or on other business. White, formerly the vice president of pro personnel, has negotiated contracts and said he often had to deliver the news that a player was being cut.

After the promotion, White said he received phone calls from several people with ties to the NFL, including his former coach Bill Parcells and current Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith. White and Smith both went to Meadowdale High School in Dayton, Ohio.

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White began his career in scouting with the Lions in 1997 after playing defensive back in the NFL from 1988-93. A third-round pick by the Giants in 1988, White played for the Lions from 1990-92 and was on the last team to beat the Packers in Green Bay and win a postseason game for Detroit, both of which happened in 1991.

He understands the importance of winning.

“The biggest direction I got from Mrs. Ford was she’s not giving up on this season,” he said. “Her direct message to me was, ‘I need to win, and I want to win now.’

“It’s not any type of rebuild or anything like that. I don’t even like the word rebuild. I feel like you’re always building instead of rebuilding.”

White also praised wide receiver Calvin Johnson and quarterback Matthew Stafford, two players whose futures will face heavy speculation until the permanent general manager is in place. White declined to say if he’s working on an extension with defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, the team’s top offseason acquisition.

With the future uncertain for everyone, White said his message to the scouts and players was the same. Work hard with the current job because nobody knows when someone might tap your shoulder to fire you.

“Not one of us know what the future’s bringing,” he said. “It was the same messages to the team: ‘Don’t make me come grab you and pull you in my office. And if I do, you gave great effort and we just decided to make a change.’

“So make sure you don’t fire yourself. We have to do our job and we have a job to do that we were assigned to do, and we have to just go grind it out and see what happens after that.”