In this episode, we chat with Dan Lyle, former Rugby Champion and Director at AEG Rugby. Dan pioneered the game as the first American to play in Europe for the Bath Rugby Team, where he helped the team win their first European Cup Championship in 1998. Dan later played for the US National Team, and was inducted into the US Rugby Hall of Fame in 2016. Although he retired from the game in 2003, he remains an executive leader and advocate for the sport.
Listen as we chat with Dan about his career, balancing being an individual and a team member, the importance of mastering the fundamentals in any trade, and how to hone your craft.
Watch the podcast episode:
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Dan Lyle, former professional rugby union player and one of the greatest athletes to play the game. Dan pioneered the game as the first American to play in Europe for the Bath Rugby team, where he helped the team win their first European Cup Championship in 1998. Dan later played for the U.S. national team and was inducted into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame in 2016. Although he retired from the game in 2003, he’s remained an executive leader and an advocate for the sport.
Join us today as chat with Dan about life after rugby and his role in shaping the game today through executive leadership and mentoring.
There he is. Welcome, Dan!
Dan Lyle: Hey Kirk, thanks for having me. This is a unique opportunity. Should be a lot of fun.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. It already is. It already is. How are the holiday plans coming together?
Dan Lyle: Yeah, good. We’re not getting too much snow here in Colorado yet. I’m going to double down on that. My parents live in San Antonio, Texas, which is a wonderful gastronomic experience if you’ve never been there before.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. So you guys are going down there?
Dan Lyle: We’re going to go down there. My brother and my sister and my nieces and nephews. We’ll have a big group of people. Should be fun.
Kirk Bachmann: They let you out for a while. NBC Sports lets you slip away for a couple weeks.
Dan Lyle: Yeah. In this virtual world, I actually have to record a game from my parents’ house, so I have to figure out how to transport a few things down there on the 27th.
Kirk Bachmann: Wow! No rest for the wicked. There you go.
I love it. I love following you on social media. Let’s talk about rugby for a minute here. Obviously, we have a lot of culinarians that follow us, but I’ve had the good fortune of knowing you and your family for a long time. When I think about you, I think about leadership, I think about coaching. And I think we have some really cool things to talk about. But more than anything, I’m going to make you blush for a minute because anytime you google you, you come up with something better. But this paragraph blew my mind. I quote:
“Possibly the most significant rugby player to come out of the United States ever, and undoubtedly the best American player of the early professional era. Dan Lyle changed the game in a variety of ways that can still be seen today.”
Talk to me about what rugby means to you.
Dan Lyle: Like everyone else that’s probably listening to this, at least those Americans that are listening to it, we grow up playing soccer, basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse – all the wonderful sports that we have. I’m missing about ten of them. I played everything known to us all. When I tripped into rugby, I was trying to make the Washington football club – formerly the Redskins – out of college, and back then there were no sports performance centers. There was no place to go train and do that stuff, so I had a first cousin. It’s often blind luck, or you trip into some of these sports.
I started playing the game in Washington, D.C. It really just felt like all of the sports that I had played rolled up into one. It was the athleticism of soccer, the skill of basketball, the proprioceptive physical contact of football. All those things. I really took to it probably as quickly as anybody has. I was just really lucky to land in good environments. First amateur level in American, then professionally abroad. I had really good mentors at the U.S. national team level, and they all really brought me along into the sport that is the root of American football and basketball. It was here before those two sports were. It’s authentic, but it’s unique all at the same time.
Kirk Bachmann: I know your boys play. It’s more of a gentleman’s sport, right? The tackling is more of a wrapping? Is that correct?
Dan Lyle: Yeah. The old saying of soccer as a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans and rugby is a hooligan sport played by gentlemen. In college, we kind of double down on that in America. It’s kind of like “my drinking team has a rugby problem.” Which is great in my business now, in the event world, because we are a consumption crowd. The F&B numbers, the per cap numbers are through the roof in stadiums that we go to.
My wife, who’s English – I was lucky to meet over in England and bring her home back to America – she’s happy that our boys are playing rugby because they teach tackling. Actually, you have to physically put your head to a side, you actually physically have to wrap. If you put your mind’s eye onto football, you just collide. They’re trying to take the head out of the tackle now. They’re trying to take all those parts, and we’ve got to embrace the hard parts of the game, the controversial side of it. Player welfare is the highest priority for most organizations that are in sports. You want your kids and your players to be safe. Rugby teaches the practicalities, the fundamentals of tackling, which begins to take some of the danger out of the game.
Kirk Bachmann: Talk a little bit about the – I hope I get it right – the U.S. Eagles. That’s the National Team, right?
Dan Lyle: The American sports complex is after school, scholastically high school, college, pro, and/or the Olympics. We tend to forget outside the Olympics that there are a bunch of international sports going on all over the world. America is pretty good at some of them, and we participate in a lot of those. So just like the major league soccer or Christian Pulisic playing for Chelsea. He’s going to come back and play for somebody. He’s going to play for the U.S. soccer team. So the U.S. men’s and women’s national team, their nickname is the Eagles. I had a decade. I played ten years for the U.S. team while I was playing internationally, club rugby for Bath and abroad.
Kirk Bachmann: In England. Can you share a few of the fondest memories? I imagine the cup, the European Cup, 1998. How big was that for Bath at that time? They had never won the cup before, right?
Dan Lyle: No. We were the first English team to win it. Bath was a very, very, very good side when I came on it. They had won eight or nine English premiership titles, league titles. The European Cup was a new mountain. I came into that team, and we excelled.
I was trying to think about stories that combine sports and food and fuel and all those things together. We played the European Cup final in Bordeaux in France against the team called Brive that were next door. We stayed for the three days building up to the event and the Chateau Saint Emilion.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow!
Dan Lyle: Which is arguably one of the finest vineyards on the planet.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely!
Dan Lyle: We had this epic training and game and we’re staying there in the chateau, out of Bordeaux. We win this 19-18 epic game in front of 40,000 people at the Stad. We go out and we mix the fans, and we’re all crazy, and we have our suits on and our things, and we come back at 3 o’clock in the morning. I kid you not, Michelin star chefs are cooking omelets for us. They’re just as excited as we are. They’re popping bottles of wine that I could not – my house is less expensive. It was just a remarkable experience.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. What a great story! I had never do that story before. You did your homework! I love it.
How big of a moment was that in your life? How did that impact decisions that you made about your career, about your life afterwards?
Dan Lyle: I don’t think anybody needs pinnacle moments to be successful in life. You don’t have to get to the top of the mountain. It is the challenge of getting there, the journey that is important. The relationships that you build. But certainly from an American perspective, having some of those crowning achievements and firsts allowed me to crack the door open a little bit wider for my career, for other Americans, for the next generation. It was a pivotal moment for that.
And the great thing about it was also: in a soccer-mad country, a football-mad in their country in England, Bath is a rugby town. The soccer team is maybe seventh or eighth division. It was so rewarding to come back to tens of thousands of people in the city square in a Georgian, Roman city that lives and breathes off of their rugby team, and to be able to bring that back.
Personally, it was satisfying. It was satisfying to be part of something to do for a town where the recreation ground, which is the rugby ground, is in the heart of the city. It’s at the foot of so many of the different great architecture there. It was a great moment.
Kirk Bachmann: And they’ll never forget that. Have they won the championship since?
Dan Lyle: No. I don’t know if it’s a curse or not. But they haven’t. They’re not doing great this season. My other team, I played one season when I finished for the Leicester Tigers. One season. I played seven seasons for Bath in my eight years over there in my career. The Leicester Tigers are undefeated and in the top of the league right now, so I’m claiming them right now.
Kirk Bachmann: I think there’s a movie in there somewhere.
Dan Lyle: Absolutely.
Kirk Bachmann: I haven’t really talked to you that much about this, but you grew up in a military family, right? I believe your dad’s a general?
Dan Lyle: Yep.
Kirk Bachmann: So I imagine you traveled around a little bit. Was rugby a part of any of that when you were living in Europe briefly?
Dan Lyle: No. We lived in Germany for five years when I was first through fifth grade. I lived in 13 places before I was 18, including three different high schools, and all over the place.
I was at a British-American business council lunch in L.A. and I sat next to Sebastian Coe, Lord Coe. This was just this week. Sat next to him. He’s won a couple of gold medals, L.A. games in ‘84. He’s the head of the track and field. He was all these kind of things. We were talking about what the growth of rugby and the growth of the game looks like in America, and he said, “Look. Don’t act too American, but act American.”
Meaning, those of us that get the chance to get out of our own skin and out of our country, we realize pretty quickly that everybody consumes the American culture. We export our culture, our TV, or music, everything about us, our politics. Everybody. But we don’t import a lot of stuff. We import a lot of cool stuff, but we don’t import anywhere near the pro rata of what’s down there.
The coolest thing about being a military brat and traveling is you get to see America outside of America. You first and foremost appreciate it a lot, and what we have. But second, you also realize that we’ve got our chinks in our armor and there are so many other wonderful things out there. Generally, we’re the collection of all of that. I think if we realize that, that we’re the sum of our parts, not individually superior or practically superior in any shape or form, we pretty quickly get to a neutral ground. And then you start enjoying everything about who you are, and everything when you go abroad.
Kirk Bachmann: Well said. So at this point in your career, you’ve spent as much time off the field as you did on the field. I think this pivot is really poignant. It’s really important for our students to hear about, too. Many of our students come to us in maybe the second phase of their life, maybe second career after having been in a previous career.
When you retired from rugby, and then you shifted to leadership for rugby – director of operations for USA rugby – what brought that about, Dan? A lot of times superstar athletes love to get into the booth and show their knowledge every weekend. Others like to coach, but boy, you went right to the top. Like, “I’m going to have an impact on rugby in America for generations to come.” Did somebody guide you that way, or is that something that you really thought about?
Dan Lyle: In your last point, I was raised by two wonderful human beings and had a lot of osmosis and leadership and sucking in what my dad and mom would say and do and see. To the point of every Thanksgiving and every Christmas we would go eat with the troops and go to the mess hall and help spoon out those ice cream scoopers of mashed potatoes. Really, it’s just trying to create a selfless though process.
So the leadership side of things and giving back, I was lucky to have that ingrained as a lesson. And then I went to a military college and all that kind of stuff. I was always kind of in that place where maybe I was always in front of the class. I wasn’t always the best, certainly. Certainly, I had to be put in the front of the class a few times.
All of that stuff blends into when I was playing, I looked for extra stuff to do. Certainly, I coached and I did community stuff, and I did a lot of the stuff that you referenced before, but I also got stuck in with the players’ association and became an executive on that. That’s really about the business of sport. That’s about collective bargaining, how everybody’s going to work together, how player welfare and insurance and salary caps, and all those different things. I kind of knew. I did some work on my MBA. I did some work on [what] life was like in the economic world. I did some internships with GE Capital in England. I was always kind of messing around. I didn’t know where that was going to take me, whether that was going to take me to finish graduate school, whether that was going to take me to a corporate finance job, whether that was going to take me to a teaching job. I didn’t know, but I always knew that I wasn’t going to be a coach. I always knew that I was going to be in the business side of things.
As you know, I’m a coach. I coach my kids, and your kids, and all kids, in every sport. Because I enjoy seeing kids and people have fun, try their best to be a good teammate – all those things that they do.
But I think the long and short of it is, it’s scary to retire at 33 years old, or 34 years old, from one profession and then try to reboot. You’re not making the same salary by any stretch of the imagination. You don’t have all those built up tools and arsenal of experiences and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got to try to take what you learned before, be humble enough to get stuck in, roll up your sleeves again. If your trajectory is up, it’s going to be up. If it’s flat, it’s going to be flat. I always say to people, “Find time once a month to look outside of where you are. Don’t just look at your day to day. Try to look outside of who you are.” It’s almost like you’re strategic reboot. Strategic in what am I doing right now. Not just my work, but my life, my kids, my wife, my charity. Whatever is exciting to you.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s healthy for the family as well. When you think about your roll as a thought leader – a leader for rugby in the United States and sports in the United States – have there been some major achievements, some benchmarks that have occurred while you’ve been involved that you believe you had a little bit something to do with or a lot something to do with since you retired?
Dan Lyle: We’ve created events that look like real American events. Selling out stadiums, both major league soccer stadiums and NFL stadiums. Getting prime-time NBC on the peacock, on the main network. Building a sport. America is so valuable to the Olympic movement because of the athletes we produce, the money that NBC pays into the broadcast fees. Getting into the Olympics or getting rugby back into the Olympics.
Now we’re at the precipice. We’re at our 1994 moment in American rugby where the World Rugby, which is the equivalent of FIFA in soccer is knocking on the door saying, “Hey, we need to put a World Cup in America for the game to be truly global.” We’re working hand-in-glove with USA Rugby and others to [figure out] what does that look like. Tentatively, it’s 2031. I know ten years sounds like a long way away.
Kirk Bachmann: Gets here before you know it.
Dan Lyle: The ten-year runway, plus we have the 28 games in L.A. which is the men’s and women’s rugby. Really, the unlocking of America comes with a couple of seminal – nobody in America is not going to watch the Olympics in America. Nobody in America is not going to watch a rugby World Cup in America. Plus, as we’ve talked about before: every match is a home match in America because there’s so many ex-pats. There’s more Brits and ex-pats and Kenyans. Every country is represented in America, plus there’s a half-a-million people that travel in for that. There’s some really cool moments.
Working for a company like AEG, we’re arguably the largest sports entertainment company on the planet, with music and facilities and sports. To be able to bring the AEG force to a sport and working with all of my colleagues and people within that level of sport, it’s really just taken rugby from what was a niche and kind of – as Aretha Franklin says – looking for some respect, to the level of you can communicate on those same levels as other sports. You’ve got to earn your stripes, but communicating. Those are some great moments and continued moments that we’re currently in.
Kirk Bachmann: So are we locked in, then, the United States, 2031?
Dan Lyle: The next World Cup is in France in ‘23. Then they’re warning the next two World Cups this May of ‘22. So us and Australia are the preferred candidates, but we’ve got to do a lot of financial work and other work. We don’t want to jinx it.
As I said, the world game needs the American market to embrace rugby to the extent that it embraces a lot of international sports. When you and I were in college – I won’t say how many moons ago –
Kirk Bachmann: Thank you.
Dan Lyle: A few moons ago, our dad’s did not play soccer. I played soccer, and my kids play soccer. We’re the first generation of soccer dads. Those generational tides. Right now, those ‘60s and ‘70s, meaning the 1960s and the 1970s dads and ‘80s when a lot of college rebooted themselves. There’s almost a thousands universities that play rugby. It’s crazy, because it was the root of American football, but they rebooted in the ‘60s and ‘70s, so a lot of those guys are maturing now, and they’ve got kids. So we’re kind of in that same [place] that 20 years ago that soccer was in, where maybe the defensive line coach of the football team is not coaching the soccer team.
Kirk Bachmann: So where would we go if we get the 2031, what city? Would it be L.A.?
Dan Lyle: Soccer World Cup’s in 2026 here, right? We remember the 1994. It’s about 12-13 cities.
Kirk Bachmann: So spread across. Nice.
Dan Lyle: You’ve got 48-50 games. It’s a lot. It’s over six or seven weeks. It’s a big endeavor. Most of the major cities speak of themselves: New York, L.A., San Francisco, Houston, Chicago. But then you start diving down. FIFA was just here a couple of weeks ago in Denver, and then they were in L.A. last week looking at those venues, making their final selection. You kind of start with 25-30, and you get down to your ones. It’s about city hotels, transportation, all the logistics.
Kirk Bachmann: That would be exciting. We’ll keep our fingers crossed.
I’m going to dig into some motivation here. We’re not really talking about food as much, but if you had to give a culinary student some advice, knowing that they’re in their own kind of version of a training camp. They’re trying to figure it out every day. They’ve got their own transportation challenges and family challenges, pandemic challenge. What type of advice would you give to a student of culinary arts – or any student for that matter? To just stay focused and to really dig in and achieve their goals.
Dan Lyle: That’s a great question. Rarely in sport and rarely in business is there somebody that has it all. In baseball, the multi-tool player that can do all things. Once you understand the basics and understand the game or understand your craft, this in the culinary environment, then you probably are going to start figuring out what you’re really good at. Where that is going to lead you. Not try to be all things to all people all the time.
What am I good at? You have to have the basics. You have to keep practicing the basics. No matter who you are, whether it’s free throws, whether it’s basic passes, whether it’s just the basics. You have to keep practicing the basics. You have to do that.
Then you find out where you are and then ultimately, it’s kind of a balance between being an individual and being a team member. You find your ability, what you’re really good at, how you fit into the team while the team operates around you.
I think business, sport and I would imagine if you’re the chef of the Cheesecake Factory, God bless you. Who knows? A thousand different …
Kirk Bachmann: Items. Yeah.
Dan Lyle: I don’t know what to do, right? In today’s world, if you’re really good at a few things, stick with them. Then just add something to your repertoire all the time. I’m speaking as the novice to what goes on in your world, but there are some fundamentals to life. Being reasonably good at a few things versus average in a lot of things could be a differentiator.
Kirk Bachmann: I think you nailed it, too. We focus on the basics. You’ve got to crawl before you can walk. The fundamental skills before we can get to the next level.
You know, we have a Culinary Olympics as well. Every four years, in Germany. The level of competition is unbelievable.
I know your boys are getting older as mine is. Are there one or two key principles, whether you’re coaching them in rugby or with their homework, are there a few key principles that have really stuck with you from growing up with your father and your mother, traveling around the world? Were there a couple of things that really stuck with you that are absolutely non-negotiable?
Dan Lyle: We have this thing, we’re trying to have them do the simple things. We call them the basics. They can accomplish some stuff in the beginning of the day. That’s literally making their bed, brushing their teeth, combing their hair, picking up after themselves, just doing some of that stuff.
Kirk Bachmann: And those are tough tasks! Can I just say? Those are tough tasks.
Dan Lyle: They’re tough. Those things. I live in the sports world, and all those things. Everybody can be Captain Cliche and figure out another saying. You can find all kinds of things. There’s some guys and some coaches who have wonderful multi-tiered structures and their vocabulary and the way they use the discipline they’ve brought onto themselves into their environment is interesting.
I start with, “Have fun.” You’ve got to have fun in life. The second thing is you’ve got to try your best. On the basketball court, math homework, that is everything.
The last one is be a good teammate. Being a good teammate on a team is give a pass, get a pass. All those things. Smacking somebody on their back to encourage them and all that kind of stuff. But it’s the same thing in school, right? Being a good teammate is looking after each other and calling somebody out if they’re a bully. All those things. Try to align as many things, but it’s not over-complicated so there’s fifteen rules that they have to follow. And the fundamentals of math and reading and things like that, just like passing and catching and dribbling and shooting, if you understand the fundamentals and you have a good work rate and you listen.
And here’s the second part of listening, and I’ll finish with this; the other part of listening is that you’re also heard. Because coaches have to say, “Hey, do you understand what I’m saying?” But not in negative way. “Hey, does anybody else want to say anything? Have I got this right?” Because sometimes a student or a colleague or somebody is sitting there and nodding their head, and they just don’t want to tell you, “I don’t get what you’re saying, but I don’t want to raise my hand.”
Kirk Bachmann: You’ve got to be self-aware to some degree.
Dan Lyle: You’ve got to be humble enough to reverse engineer the conversation sometimes.
Kirk Bachmann: Great advice.
Here’s a tough one. Your legacy is unprecedented. It’s there. Based on some of the comments just made – being a good teammate – is there one key principle you want to be remembered for?
Dan Lyle: Are you a doctor as well? A clinical psychologist, ready to go!
Kirk Bachmann: We’re going to go deep today, buddy. We’re going to go deep.
Dan Lyle: The definition of leadership – my definition, I’m stealing this and Cliff-noting it from other things – is making those around you better.
Kirk Bachmann: Love that.
Dan Lyle: So just trying to, if people encounter me, I can be tough at times. I can be direct, and I can talk to you or at you sometimes. We all get frustrated. We all have time crunches. We all have to get things over the line. You have experiences that others don’t have, so you need to get those out.
I think you want people to realize that, “Hey, this person never pigeon-holed me. Always gave me an opportunity. Always listened to me.” I define culture as setting good expectations, meaning Kirk knows what I expect of him. He knows what I expect of myself. He knows what I expect of the team around him, and we all agree to that. And then our culture is set. We now know what we’re all going to do.
Kirk Bachmann: We manage those expectations.
Dan Lyle: We’re going to go out and execute it.
Kirk Bachmann: I like that a lot. I like that a lot. I’ll be billing you for our session at a later time.
We’re getting close to the end of our session. Great, great chat. The name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish, so dig into your kitchen there, Dan. What is, in your mind, the ultimate dish? Is it Becky cooking? Is it you cooking?
Kirk Bachmann: I am extremely lucky that my wife is more than capable. We had to cook growing up. My mom and dad worked. There was a level of understanding of the kitchen, understanding that. I quickly, in life, started to figure out when I was in my middle teens and late teens in high school and college that food is fuel, and that it serves a purpose. I believe now – I’m not going to be controversial and say it’s medicine – but what we put in ourselves is a product of how we feel and how we look and a lot of those things. Eating right and have a balanced diet with the right culinary taste factors is always the balance.
I appreciate, also, that food is not always available for a lot of people. You’ve got to cherish that you have the ability to –
Kirk Bachmann: We’re fortunate, yeah.
Dan Lyle: Absolutely. We have farm table in our dining room. We like to have family dinners. We like to, a couple times a week and Sunday, we take turns doing a roast and, God forbid, every British person knows what a roast is, but we have 19 different vegetables and copious amounts of cheese sauce and gravy, and all the different special parts of it. Crumbles.
I have an expanded vocabulary that’s Anglo-American-European and so forth. I grew up in Germany, so I hearken back to the goulash days.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
Dan Lyle: All of those things. That’s one of the things we do at my parents’ house in San Antonio; we have a German night.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s great!
Dan Lyle: We all do that, and I know that your heritage is thick and fast in there.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
Dan Lyle: I would say that I love it when family and friends can get around a table. Whether it’s a Sunday roast, whether it is a couple different pots of curry, whether it’s a take-out. My specialty, I usually do the breakfasts: omelets, waffles, and pancakes, like a lot of dads do. I just cherish those moments that we can have that time.
And generally, when you cook, it strips away what I’m doing in the day because it’s just serious enough that you have to concentrate, but not serious enough to where you’re tuned in and you can’t enjoy the company around you.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s where the best conversation happens. That’s where we hear what the kids had going on in school, and what we’re doing on the weekend. Great response.
Thanks so much for joining us. We know how busy you are. Are you heading anywhere before you go down to San Antonio?
Dan Lyle: I just got back from L.A. for a few days there. I’m going to take the second half of next week off and the following week and enjoy, and hit the ground running in January. Hopefully, we’re thankful for all of those that are protecting and serving and serving in all the different places that are the hard parts of our life, that we can mount this bloody virus and get to back to public consumption at its finest.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Thanks again, Dan. Really appreciate it. My best to Becky, and I hope you guys have a beautiful holiday.
Dan Lyle: Thanks for having me. I really appreciated and enjoyed it.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. And thank you for listening to The Ultimate Dish podcast brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links, and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.
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