PLANTSVILLE -- It was 2005 when an otherwise out-of-work freshmen football coach decided to pursue full-time employment.
"Around the age of 50," Fairfield Prep football coach Tom Shea said, "I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up."
A Prep grad who had come full circle, Shea contacted the school's principal, Dr. Robert Perrotta, about becoming a teacher.
As Shea recalls, Perrotta said, "Well, what can you teach?"
"I have a degree in economics, a degree in history," Shea told him.
"What about English?" Perrotta asked. "We have an opening."
Shea hesitated and then said, "Did I mention English?"
He chuckles while telling the story today, his teaching career almost a decade deep and his football team still alive as we hit mid-December. Tom Shea is 58 years old, almost finished with his fourth season as a varsity coach. He's a white-haired newbie in the fraternity of Connecticut coaches.
He's the mastermind behind a rebuilding process moving in fast-forward. Shea had inherited a Prep program that went winless in 2009 and somehow has it in the Class LL championship game in 2013. This is his life now, a path chosen after decades spent and millions earned in the data communications business.
"Sometimes life is a random walk," Shea said. "You find yourself in places you hadn't expected. You find opportunities you didn't anticipate. But you go for it."
The incredible story of Tom Shea goes like this: Educated at Fairfield Prep, Harvard and the London School of Economics, Shea spent years in data communications before founding a company, Sahara Networks, with two business partners in 1995.
I'll let him explain the part I don't understand: "We made networking products that enabled large businesses and telephone companies to build high-speed data networks, essentially the backbone of the Internet or access to the Internet. ... As the Internet was beginning to grow and take off, we were making products that people were using to do that. So it was right place, right time."
Sahara Networks, according to a 2000 Hartford Courant story, was started with $11 million in venture financing. Within 18 months, it sold for $212 million. Shea and his business partner, Jonathan Reeves, then founded another, Sirocco Systems based out of Wallingford.
This company, Shea said, involved more fiber optic technology. In June 2000, Sirocco was sold to Sycamore Networks in a stock swap worth $2.9 billion, according to another Courant report. It was unclear how much the founders reaped from the buyout, but it's safe to assume that Tom Shea did all right. Read Full Article
He retired at age 46 and traveled to Australia with his family for two separate six-month stints. He says it's his favorite place in the world. It's where his sons learned to play rugby. His oldest, Brendan, now plays professionally for the Denver Barbarians.
A 2008 graduate of Fairfield Prep, Brendan Shea was a junior in high school when the football team last qualified for states. Tom Shea, an assistant with Prep in the late 1970s and late 1990s, was working with the freshmen and JV teams. It had been his role since he retired from data communications and joined the staff in 2001.
But a year after Brendan graduated, Prep went 3-7 and longtime varsity coach Rich Magdon retired. The next season, under new coach Bill Pinto, the Jesuits were winless. Pinto was out and Shea was in. His first task: Assemble the right assistants.
"He's the CEO as much as he's the coach," said defensive coordinator Keith Hellstern. "He had a vision for the big picture, and he did a nice job of getting a good mix (of coaches) in."
As Shea says, putting his ridiculously successful business career in simple terms, "Hire excellent people and you'll get excellent results."
"My partner was the technology genius," Shea said. "We put together a product sweep based on off-the-shelf technology. We didn't want to reinvent the wheel but we packaged it differently ... we saw where the network was evolving to, and one of our key things for success was we just moved very, very rapidly."
"We went from concept to products in a stunning amount of time," he continued. "I was so proud of that fact that we competed in the big leagues with all the start-ups in Silicon Valley and we beat them at their own game. We worked harder, faster, smarter than they did."
ClichÃ© as it sounds, Shea implored the Jesuits to go harder, faster and smarter when he took over in 2010. The road to a Class LL tilt with Southington, to Prep's first state title game appearance since 1988, was step by step, yet stunningly fast at the same time. A 3-7 debut season turned into a 5-5 year, which then became 6-4. Prep is 11-2 in this, Shea's fourth year.
The legs of quarterback Colton Smith carried the Jesuits all season. A late 33-yard touchdown from Nicholas Crowle gave Prep a thrilling 29-28 victory over West Haven in last weekend's semifinal, the team's second victory over its SCC rival in 10 days. The Jesuits had lost five straight to the Blue Devils prior to this Thanksgiving.
"When I (became coach), we had to first win a game," Shea said. "We had to run a play right with no mistakes, play a quarter, play a half. But we had to win a game -- beat someone, anyone. And then we had to beat teams in the SCC. And then we had to beat an elite team. And then we had to beat an elite team on the road. And we've done that."
It was in 1977 when Shea, fresh out of Harvard, was an assistant coach on Prep's first state championship team. He's made a few bucks and switched careers, and now the retired business mogul/English teacher/CEO of Prep football is in position to bring home another one.