It might sound like an odd combination, teaching Latin at a college preparatory school and coaching football and basketball.
For Tom Lytle, it’s a dream come true.
The former University of Montana basketball player who was on his way to a doctorate in classics until he had a career-changing revelation is doing just that at the Hun School in Princeton, N.J., where he’s finishing his third year.
The Hun School is the latest step in a long and winding path Lytle has taken since finishing his basketball career at UM with the 1989-90 season.
With some help from another ex-Griz post player, Steve Vanek, Lytle hooked up with an agent from Milwaukee, Wis., attended a showcase camp in Chicago and wound up playing basketball overseas for two seasons - one in Iceland that kept him there for nine months and another in Germany
“It exposed me to the world,” Lytle said of his overseas hoops experience, “and I was always curious about things. It was a great experience living overseas and I got to keep doing what I loved to do, play basketball.”
His first team played for the Iceland Cup, losing in the final. After that he hooked up with the German team new to the second-division.
“It was a tough season,” Lytle said. “They just didn’t have the roster to compete. It was a pretty frustrating year and it was during that time that I thought, ‘I gotta go back and finish up my degree and get started with the next stage of my life.’”
He returned to UM to earn his bachelor’s degree in Latin in 1993, then moved on to the University of Texas in Austin to go for a master’s in classics.
“I was there for five years, basically reinventing my self as a full-time student,” Lytle said. “My goal at that point was to start teaching and coaching in high school.”
A UT professor, however, convinced him to pursue a doctorate in classics, so he did, on the East Coast at Princeton.
After getting through all of his PhD course work and exams plus a dissertation proposal, he was about to sit down and write the dissertation when the revelation hit him.
“I realized looking at the way professors lived, especially in my field and coming from a competitive school like Princeton, it just wasn’t the life for me, and I still always wanted to get back in coaching,” Lytle said.
At the same time he was in a serious relationship with the woman he would marry in 2005. Kiki, from Greece, had her doctorate and would work in Los Angeles and Toronto with Lytle tagging along.
Lytle helped coach the men’s basketball team at the University of Toronto and was looking for work when Kiki was wrapping up her stay there. He had contacted former UM coaches he had played for including Blaine Taylor, Stew Morrill and Mike Montgomery, as well as former teammate and current UM coach Wayne Tinkle, and they all delivered the same message.
“There’s a window there where young guys are gonna have a bit of an advantage because you’re willing to work for peanuts,” they told him in so many words.
At that point Lytle caught a break when a former Princeton colleague offered to hand deliver his resume to the Hun School where his wife had the position Lytle now has.
Lytle teaches all levels of Latin while coaching freshman boys’ basketball and junior varsity football, the latter as head coach.
Varsity head football coach Dave Dudeck, also a lieutenant with the local police department, has been a big help to Lytle.
“He kind of took me under his wing there,” Lytle said. “He comes to all of the JV games. He lets me call the offense and defense, and we talk all the way through the games, so I’m learning from one of the better high school coaches in the area.”
While Lytle is waiting to see what might happen in terms of becoming a head basketball coach somewhere he really likes the students he works with.
“It’s a pretty expensive school,” Lytle pointed out. “It’s known as an athletics feeder school. These kids are highly motivated. Almost down the line they’re curious, they’re attentive, they’re hard working. It’s a great situation.”
One down side to coaching at the high school level is the growing influence of Amateur Athletic Union programs.
“Sometimes you have a player not listen to you, perhaps because they heard something form their AAU coach,” Lytle noted. “That sometimes can be frustrating, but it’s like what Stew used to say to me: ‘I’ve got your playing time right here in my pocket.’”
Lytle said the AAU has figured out how to turn a profit by “creating exposure for the kids,” something that also might lead to AAU coaches landing lucrative assistant coaching positions at major schools, especially in basketball.
Kiki came to the U.S. to work on her doctorate at Princeton starting in 1996, two years ahead of Lytle.
“I just remember during one of my first courses sitting in this crowded room seeing this person sitting in the back,” Lytle recalled. “Every time someone opened their mouth I saw this person scoffing and laughing and giving them a hard time.
“I was impressed with her ability to go into a room and treat everybody the same,” Lytle added, “and not really care what their status was as long as you got to the truth.”
Kiki teaches at Princeton and also works for the Educational Testing Service, so “she’s settled right in to what she likes to do.”
The Lytles have a 2 1/2-year-old daughter, Veronica, who was born in Greece because her mother’s visa paperwork wasn’t complete when they tried to return to the states from Canada. So Veronica was born with dual citizenship.
At Judge Memorial High School in Salt Lake City Lytle played football and basketball as a freshman and sophomore but concentrated on hoops his final two years there, even though - because he filled out physically later in high school - he wonders now if he would have been better off sticking with football.
A high school teammate ended up playing basketball at Washington State with Bob Niehl, an assistant for Montgomery and Morrill at Montana. Montgomery saw Lytle play at a summer tournament in Nevada before his senior year. Niehl also was watching his progress, and Morrill came to the Utah state tournament during Lytle’s senior season.
Lytle got his attention by scoring over 30 points in a double overtime win, and “right after the game he said, ‘we want you.’”
Lytle knew Montgomery was “a great coach” who liked going to big guys inside, so he felt comfortable with going to Montana. Ironically Montgomery left for Stanford in the spring of Lytle’s first year at UM.
Lytle questioned his decision to attend UM, but once Morrill took over he felt comfortable again, partly because of his ability to coach big men.
It didn’t hurt that he practiced against the likes of Larry Krystkowiak, Larry McBride, Vanek, Daren Engellant and Kevin Kearney.
“I loved going to practice,” Lytle said. “I could put everything else aside, go out there and just bust my butt knowing that my teammates were going to do the same thing, and it was just going to be fun.”
A knee injury wiped out Lytle’s second season at Montana and then, early in his third season, he broke a hand. And he broke it again in the same place when he tried to come back after rehab.
Since he already had redshirted he was unable to appeal for an extra year.
Lytle could have been frustrated by the injuries and lack of playing time, but he learned to deal with all of it.
“The value of sports is that you’re always trying to find out how good you are,” he said, “and that means you’re going to fail sometimes. You have to learn to deal with that. It taught me a lot about life in that short period.”
Lytle made good use of the time spent on busses during his career, luring teammates into philosophical discussions you probably won’t find in a lot of athletic programs.
“I was always a locker room lawyer,” Lytle laughed. “The coaches may not have appreciated that much, but I just liked having debates with people. I would pick things that I knew would get under people’s skin just to draw them in.
“I was a dumbed-down version of Socrates maybe,” he added.
When Lytle won the Naseby Rhinehart most inspirational player award following his senior season he felt like it fit him.
“I just had some dumb luck on the basketball court,” Lytle said. “My body didn’t respond well to certain situations and I ended up having to sit out. I think guys (and coaches) started to appreciate how hard I was working to get back in the lineup.”
Lytle did crack the starting five briefly during the conference portion of his senior year, and that turned out to be his favorite memory even though it didn’t last long.
But what he liked most was the camaraderie within the team. He stays in touch with a few of his former teammates, some on Facebook.
He keeps track of Grizzly basketball as best he can and exchanges e-mails with Tinkle on occasion
“It’s more personal now because a teammate is the coach,” Lytle explained.
Lytle also had a good relationship with Don Holst, a graduate assistant coach when he played for Montana.
“Don would come and asked me about Marcus Aurelius (a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher) since he was reading (him) for one of his classes,” Lytle laughed. “Anybody that can ask me about Marcus Aurelius is a good guy.”
Lytle also was excited when Krystkowiak came back to coach at UM and wishes he had stuck with the college game instead of trying to coach in the NBA.
His mother and father retired in the Stevensville area in 1993, but Lytle made only occasional visits while in graduate school. Both died of cancer, his father in 1999 and his mother in 2000, and he has not been to Montana since.
His older brother Jack is a game warden in Utah - Lytle came to UM from Salt Lake city in 1985 - while another brother lives in the West while working as a television camera man for a network that is sending him to South Africa for soccer’s World Cup.
He and Kiki have been to Yellowstone National Park but didn’t go any further because Veronica was less than a year old at the time.
“I think we’ve got to plan another trip out there,” Lytle said.
There was no hesitation when asked how his time at UM influenced his life.
“Going to Montana was (my) first big step going away from home,” Lytle recalled. “It was a big adventure. I was starting all over as a freshman. The challenges of being an athlete and a student prepared me to deal with the challenges that I’m facing now.
“Every day you have to get up and go do what you have to do,” he went on. “I didn’t have people preaching at me. People were letting me figure out things on my own. I was given the space (at UM) to do that.
“I didn’t have a storied career, but I’m happy with what happened because I took the lessons from that and applied (them) to my life,” Lytle said. “As a teacher and coach now the one thing that I always (remind) my students and players is that you (usually) get one chance sometimes in life, and when you do get a chance to do it again you want to make sure that you do it the right way.”