Fairfield Prep football coach Tom Shea stepping down

Tom Shea witnessed the fall of Fairfield Prep football, so as a proud alumnus, he returned in 2010 to bring the program back to prominence.

After following through on those plans and turning the Jesuits back into a contender, he's ready to hand the reins to someone else.

Shea resigned as Prep's coach after a five-year stay that was highlighted by a trip to the Class LL final in 2013. Former defensive coordinator Keith Hellstern will take over as coach, but Shea plans to stay on as an assistant.

"It's tough to give up the best job I've ever had," Shea said late Wednesday by phone. "I've been so lucky."

The news was first reported on Wednesday by @SportsFairfield on Twitter.

The Jesuits made a steady rise under Shea, who replaced Billy Pinto following an 0-10 campaign in 2009. Shea led the program to a 3-7 record his first year, but in 2013, he guided the Jesuits to 11 wins and a berth in the Class LL championship -- a 52-34 loss to Southington.

"I had five years. You know what it was like when I started," said Shea, who finished with a 32-23 record. "It was kind of in tough shape. I had a plan."

As part of that five-year plan, Shea identified and groomed his eventual replacement. Prior to arriving at Prep, Hellstern was a defensive line and special teams coach at Wesleyan University.

"Every day I'm with him, I'm convinced he's going to be our coach for the next 25 years," Shea said of Hellstern, who teaches history at Prep.

The Jesuits went 7-4 in 2014 but were eliminated from postseason contention following a 21-14 loss to West Haven on Thanksgiving. Despite missing the playoffs, Shea believes that he's left the program in good hands.

Along with improving the product on the field, Shea improved the resources around the program. He upgraded equipment and oversaw the rise of a passing camp.

"When you look at the program, it's where I wanted it to be," Shea said.

He added: "I didn't want him to start from ground zero like I did."

Shea will also continue to teach English at Prep, a school that's been part of his life for decades. He had separate coaching stints in the late 1970s and 1990s with the freshman and junior varsity football squads.

"It was hard to go," Shea said, "but I had my mind made up at the beginning of the year."

The Jesuits will need to replace a strong core that includes quarterback Colton Smith and lineman Anthony Palazzolo, who will play at Boston College next fall.

dbonjour@ctpost.com; twitter.com/DougBonjour