When Tom Shea was tapped to take over Fairfield Prep’s foundering football program in 2010, he made a promise to the school’s administration and himself: It was going to take five years to turn the team’s fortunes around.
It took Shea four.
So on Wednesday night, five years after Shea became head coach and a year removed from a Class LL championship appearance, the coach decided he’d accomplished his mission.
At the team’s annual banquet, Shea announced he was resigning as head coach and turning the job over to defensive coordinator Keith Hellstern.
Shea isn’t going far, however. He will stay on as an assistant coach.
“I’ve grown up in the program, and being the head coach was the best thing I’ve ever done — other than get married and have kids,” Shea said. “But I had a plan when I started, I stuck with that plan. Unless I didn’t have the program where I wanted, maybe I would have stayed on. Now, I believe this is the right thing to do and I’m comfortable with my decision.
“Everybody was surprised, but they all said they have great confidence in Keith to keep the program going.”
A Fairfield Prep alumnus, Shea has been with the program in varying capacities since 1969. He was promoted to head coach from the freshman team in 2010, a few months after the Jesuits went winless 2009 and fired then-coach Billy Pinto after one season.
Shea was 32-23 in five years, including a Class LL championship game appearance and winning seasons in his final three years. Only a 53-27 loss to Southington in the 2013 Class LL final kept Shea from winning the school’s first title since 1988.
Regardless, Shea steps down from the position as a happy man.
“I got all the goals I wanted to accomplish done in those five years,” said Shea, who was the New Haven Register’s 2013 All-Area Coach of the Year. “The program was in rough shape when I started and I’m happy to say we’ve had some success. I got the staff I wanted, I got the kids I wanted, we got into passing leagues, we upgraded the facilities… A couple of plays here and there and maybe we could have won a championship.”
Shea said he knew the 2014 season would be his last as head coach, but didn’t want to make his eventual resignation a distraction.
“We had enough football things going on,” he said. “So I just said to myself, let’s sit on this and let everybody else do their thing.”
A social studies teacher at Fairfield Prep, Hellstern grew up in New Jersey and played at Wesleyan. He was the interim coach there when Shea hired him to become Fairfield Prep’s defensive coordinator in 2010.
Shea said it didn’t take him and the Fairfield Prep administration long to realize Hellstern would be the next coach.
“When I became head coach, I wanted to hire the next guy,” Shea said. “I really didn’t want to have a hiccup like we did the last time. I coached five years here, I wanted to find the guy who could coach the next 20.
“Keith Hellstern is a tremendous coach. I have all the confidence in the world in him. He’s a great teacher and he believes in the values we teach here at Fairfield Prep. Wins are important, but we want to instill life lessons of a Jesuit school like ours.”
Hellstern takes over a program that graduates all-state players like quarterback Colton Smith and lineman Anthony Palazzolo. The Jesuits will try to improve on last year’s 7-4 record, which was one win short of a second-consecutive playoff appearance.
“I think we still have some ammunition,” Shea said. “We’ve got a lot of good, young kids. We’ll have almost the entire staff back. Keith’s going to make some changes and put his mark on the program. I guess I’ll find out what those are Friday from my new boss.”