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Bleeding Cardinal and Gold

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USC Rugby Hall of Famer Dave Lytle with a team ball and the 2007 Rugby World Cup Championship Ball. His team went undefeated that year. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

USC Rugby Hall of Famer Dave Lytle with a team ball and the 2007 Rugby World Cup Championship Ball. His team went undefeated that year. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Dave Lytle retires after 30-plus years playing for and coaching  USC rugby

 

by Randy Angel

In 1983, at the age of 44, Dave Lytle went out for the USC Rugby Club team and became, by far, the oldest member on the squad. It marked the beginning of a love story between Lytle, the sport of rugby and the Trojan family.

In May, the Rugby Club’s Hall of Famer  retired after 28-years as the head coach of USC’s rugby team.

Lytle grew up in West Los Angeles and attended Santa Monica College before graduating from the University of Utah in 1962. He had a strong background in football and athletics and moved back to Southern California to pursue what became a 30-year career in law enforcement.

Now residing in Rolling Hills Estates (he has lived on the Peninsula since 1975) Lytle served mostly as a State Parole Agent with a two-year stint at the California Institution for Men in Chino.

“When I was playing football at Santa Monica, we would go out to Chino and play the inmates in a game,” Lytle recalled. “I felt things had come full circle.”

Working for the state, Lytle was offered free tuition to further his education.

“I applied to the two most expensive schools in the state, USC and Stanford, and was accepted at both,” Lytle said. “I decided on USC because I didn’t want to make the commute to Stanford for night classes.”

The 2007 University Rugby World Cup Championship Game Ball. USC went undefeated that year. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

The 2007 University Rugby World Cup Championship Game Ball. USC went undefeated that year. Photo by Brad Jacobson (CivicCouch.com)

Although in his mid-40s, Lytle wanted to play lacrosse at USC because he was adept at stick handling. The coach told him he was too old and not tough enough. An argument ensued and campus police were called.

“I knew most of them from my job in law enforcement so the confrontation ended quickly,” Lytle said.

“I went across the street to a pub and saw some guys drinking together and singing some pretty spicy songs. I asked who they were and they told me they were the USC Rugby Club. I asked if I could play and one guy said ‘Hey guys, this is Dave and he’s going to play rugby with us.’”

It was the beginning of what Lytle calls “a great ride.”

“The thing about rugby is that if you can do it, the players don’t care what you look like, how old you are or your ethnicity,” Lytle said. “If you do the job, you’re accepted. I was 47 years old the last year I played.”

Lytle quickly found that the brotherhood between rugby players is like no other. With little to no protection, opposing players compete in an extremely physical, constantly moving game that is not for the squeamish. Yet sportsmanship is of the utmost importance and it is a common occurrence for opposing players to drink a few beers together after a contest.

“The amazing thing about rugby is the lifelong friendships you make,” Lytle said. “There is a bond in football, but it’s nothing like the bond in rugby.”

Lytle continues to play in USC Rugby Alumni games and holds the team record for the longest keg stand of 2 minutes, 23 seconds. A keg stand is a drinking game where the participant does a handstand on a keg of beer and attempts to drink as much as possible at once or to drink for as long as possible.

“The highlight of my playing career was just putting on the cardinal and gold jersey and representing USC,” Lytle said. “The first time out was amazing. One of my best friends, George Contreras made a Trojan out of me and I’m a lifetime member of the Cardinal and Gold club founded by Nick Pappas.”

Rugby also provided Lytle the opportunity to see other parts of the world. Selected to a travel team, he played in Singapore, Taipei, Japan, Korea and Hong Kong.

Known for his storytelling and sense of humor, Lytle recalls an incident with his travel team.

“On the plane, I told players I could run a 10 flat,” Lytle said. “We got there and began to practice. At the end, players were asking where the 10-flat speed was. I told them, ‘Look at how fast I covered those 40 yards. It was under 10 seconds.’ Everyone laughed.”

Founded in 1910, the USC Trojans Rugby Football Club is the school’s oldest and most prestigious club sport. It competes in the Southern California Rugby Football Union and in the Gold Coast Conference of Intercollegiate Rugby

In 1986, Lytle became the only USC club sport athlete to receive a Varsity Ring which was presented by Athletic Director Mike McGee.

After playing for the Trojans, Lytle served two years on the USC Rugby Advisory Committee then became head coach in 1988.

He led the Trojans to a Division Championship in 2005 and Division and Regional titles while going undefeated in 2009 which he considers the highlight of his coaching career.

“We routed CSU Fullerton for the 2007 title,” Lytle said. “The closest game was a 17-14 win over UCLA, which was the most points scored on us all season. Going undefeated in a season is a rarity.”

Lytle and the rugby club enjoyed great support during the McGee-Pappas era, but he admits that it was tough to keep the program alive for awhile.

“I wish university would help out more,” Lytle said. “The Intramural and Recreational Sports Departments helped us out but field space was always a problem. USC’s home is at the McAlister Field, located near the Los Angeles Coliseum.

“(Former head football coach) Pete Carroll was a big supporter of the Rugby Club,” Lytle said. “Pete was amazing, letting us use Howard Jones Field to practice on since it was the only field on campus with goal posts which is a huge part of the game of rugby.”

Carroll is known for teaching rugby-style tackling techniques with the Seattle Seahawks.

“It’s safer and better to wrap up the ball carrier than to bounce off of him,” Lytle explained. “If I were a football coach and had a marginal player that maybe was out of shape, I’d have him play rugby. It is a great sport for conditioning and improving coordination skills.

“There’s always a player that comes along that is not a gifted athlete and maybe not in the best of shape but has a big heart. After he begins to play and works out, he develops to become an effective rugby player who contributes to the team.”

Lytle said he felt it was time for him to step down as coach and bring in some new blood, including former players Bryan Randles, who played in the 1990s, and Austin Reed, a member of the 2009 undefeated team.

“It’s been a lot of fun and I owe a lot to rugby,” Lytle said. “I’ve had some great guys help me over the years and I know the program is in good hands. It went down a little after my playing days but now there are 60 players on the club.”

“Dave Lytle is like a father to us at USC Rugby,” said USC team captain Joey Krassenstein. “The man dedicated his life to our country and to our rugby program. In the four years that I played for Coach Dave he was at every practice, every rugby game, and at every football tailgate. He motivated us when we were down, cheered us on when we excelled, and congratulated us whether we lost or won. I’ve never met anyone else who can tell a better story about rugby, celebrating, and life in general. The man can always put a smile on my face. I hope he enjoys his retirement and knows that USC rugby is in good hands for the future.”

Lytle said he will continue to be involved with rugby, serving on the USC Rugby Advisory Committee and attending numerous sporting events. His Trojan heritage runs deep.

His driveway bears the USC logo and he has what he calls his “Trojan Room” where he displays years of memorabilia.

“There are a lot of memories in the room,” Lytle said. “I’ll slowly turn the memorabilia over to the Rugby Club as I get older.”

Lytle used to have a Datsun 240 Z that he would drive to the USC campus. It was painted cardinal and gold and the horn played the USC Fight Song.

“One day a man came up to me and said ‘Nice car.’ I said the colors were right and he agreed,” Lytle recalled. “Occasionally, I would meet him on campus and one day we had coffee together. I asked him if he worked at the school. He said he did and I asked what he did. He told me he was the President of the university. I said, ‘No really, what do you do?’ He proved to me that he was indeed the President. That’s how I met John Hubbard.”

As a parole agent, Lytle had the opportunity to impact many lives and he acquired jobs at USC for many people.

“One man became Employee of the Year,” Lytle said proudly. “He took advantage of the free six credits offered him and eventually earned a degree. It was a great success story.”

Lytle’s influence carries beyond USC and into the community.

Duke Dulgarian, a former UCLA player who has built a championship rugby program at Mira Costa High School, acknowledges Lytle’s contributions to the sport.

“Dave Lytle is the epitome of the rugby culture,” Dulgarian said. “By that, I mean that when he coached he taught the game the way it should be taught with great fundamentals, passion and most of all sportsmanship. He understood that the rugby culture transcends the game itself.

“A true Rugger is one that plays the game to the best of his/her physical ability and completely within the laws of the game. The Rugger appreciates excellent rugby play, even if that play is coming from the other side of the pitch. That is Dave Lytle. He brought that sense of sportsmanship and love of the game to our sport. He did his best to foster the rugby culture and we are all disciples of his — despite the fact that he coached at USC.”

Lytle sees the growth of rugby in the South Bay and feels the return of the sport to the Olympics will help boost its popularity throughout the United States.

“Youth rugby just started when I played,” Lytle said. “Now there are 10U and 12U teams, which is what the sport needs. The television coverage from the Rio de Janeiro Games will only help introduce kids to rugby.”

Rugby has not been an Olympic sport since 1924 and USA is the defending gold medal champions. The U.S. men’s and women’s rugby sevens teams have already qualified for the 2016 Olympics by winning continental championships.

Lytle will spend part of his retirement helping to build youth rugby by serving on an advisory board for the Palos Verdes Rugby Club. It  is run by one of his former coaches at USC, Jeremy Wilkinson.

“Talk about somebody bringing unity on the hill, Wilkinson did something special, bringing athletes from rival schools (Palos Verdes and Peninsula) together to play rugby,” Lytle said. “He has a great passion for the sport.”

Growing up in South Africa, Wilkinson began playing rugby when he was six year old. He played college rugby in London.

“Dave Lytle is one of the most reliable people you will ever meet,” Wilkinson said. “He spent many late nights at USC and single-handedly held the rugby program together at a school where football is No. 1. Coaching for nearly 30 years at the same school, in any sport, is incredible.”

Like Lytle, Wilkinson feels once an athlete tries rugby, he or she will enjoy the game. He also believes cross training is important for athletes in any sport.

“There is a huge ground swell of enthusiasm for rugby,” Wilkinson said “It’s a safe sport with few major injuries and a person can play well into their 30s, 40s and beyond.”

Athletes whose high schools do not have rugby programs are allowed to play for another school, which can have up to 30 percent of its roster with players from another high school who live within 10 miles.

For more information on youth rugby, visit pvrugby.com.