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Richards’ Tony Sheehan the SouthtownStar 2013 Football Coach of the Year

Tony Sheehan Richards | File photo

Tony Sheehan, of Richards | File photo

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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:12AM

Gary Korhonen retired from Richards in 2007 as Illinois’ all-time winningest high school football coach.

He won 306 games, led the program to two state championships and had a streak of 23 consecutive years guiding the Bulldogs to the postseason at the time of his retirement. Korhonen made such an impact, Richards named its field in his honor.

Needless to say, Tony Sheehan, at age 29, had big shoes to fill when he was anointed Korhonen’s successor.

“I was a little overwhelmed,” Sheehan said. “A lot of the pressure was self-induced. I wanted to make the alumni proud of the program and wanted them to be proud of the kids. There’s a lot to live up to being coach here. It was an honor to be the next guy after Gary, but it was a challenge.”

Sheehan, a 1996 Richards graduate, has met the challenge head on. It’s the only way he knows. It’s part of his DNA.

The 35-year-old has a 48-18 record during his six-year reign. This season, however, was his finest. Sheehan led the Bulldogs to the Class 6A state championship game, their first trip to the finals since 2001. Richards fell short, losing 34-14 to Batavia, but the setback couldn’t taint the Bulldogs remarkable season — a season in which Sheehan is the SouthtownStar 2013 Football Coach of the Year.

“It’s a tribute to our kids and our staff,” Sheehan said of the honor. “They worked their butts off. It’s those guys doing everything. I just sprinkle some things in. This honor is more of a program thing.”

Before the season even started, Richards lost an All-Area player to a transfer and a two-year starter because of discipline issues. Departures of that magnitude could have crippled the Bulldogs.

But they didn’t. Sheehan and his staff moved some pieces around, and behind an explosive offense and stingy defense, Richards finished 12-2 and outscored foes 437-161.

The defense posted six shutouts and allowed just 12 points in four playoff games leading up to the 6A championship game.

“When we took over the program six years ago, this is what we envisioned, taking Richards to the top,” said Sheehan, an Eastern Illinois grad. “We knew we had something special with this group. They’re talented kids, but they were willing to put the work in and listen to what we told them. They put in the time to get bigger and better. They’re a fun group to be around.”

Sheehan grew up attending Richards football games with his father, Pat. If there’s one thing that cast a pall over this season it was the absence of his dad, who died in January.

“We would watch Notre Dame games every Saturday,” said Sheehan, an Oak Lawn resident, who’s married and is father to 14-month-old son Brayden. “I loved coming to the games with him and it made me want to keep coming back as a kid. I watched the (state champion Richards) 1988 and ’89 teams and played on some darn good teams. I take a lot of pride in being a Bulldog.”

So much, in fact, Sheehan hopes to one day have the opportunity to coach his son at Richards.

“As long as they keep me around here,” he said.

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