Bybee finds a home at IU

As George Bybee’s son gave him a Father’s Day tour of Assembly Hall, memories of childhood misadventures reemerged.

George was once a young teen who aimlessly roamed the hallowed basketball venue with his friend, Hal Hunter III, the son of Indiana’s offensive line coach. The tunnels leading to the court were cordoned off with drapes when Bob Knight closed a practice, but George and Hal had a habit of poking their heads in.

“We aren’t going to get yelled at, are we?” George asked his son, Cooper, as they walked around an empty Assembly Hall.

“I’ve been yelled at before.”

George couldn’t believe how things had changed. He wasn’t an average IU fan anymore, one false step short of a tongue-lashing.

He was the father of an IU basketball player, free to roam with his son leading the way.

The story of Cooper Bybee, the walk-on guard from Edgewood, is a perfect circle from fandom to a dream-come-true. His grandparents had season tickets to IU games. He went to Hoosier Hysteria every year. In the backyard of the Bybee house, they have a hardtop court painted with crimson lines, including an IU logo just inside the free throw stripe.

“Growing up in my backyard, shooting out back, it’s always been a dream to put on candy stripes and play at IU,” Cooper said. “I remember when I was 10 years old, I put a little IU symbol on my court. It’s actually still back there.

“But yeah, it’s always been something in the back of my head, that I can play at IU. It’s pretty amazing I’m here today.”

Bybee didn’t have the straightest path back to The Hall. The small-school sniper spent the last two years at a junior college, Olney Central, in the hopes of earning a bigger opportunity his junior year. He was never the alpha at Olney, so most of his recruiting interest out of JUCO came from Division II and NAIA programs.

When Bybee received a call from IU director of basketball administration Bill Comar, he had just arrived at a hotel the day before a visit to the University of New Orleans. The Privateers are coached by Edgewood alum Mark Slessinger, someone the Bybees greatly admire.

But the pull toward IU was just too strong.

“Ever since I had that first talk (with Comar), I wanted to get on campus as fast as I can and meet them and get things rolling as fast as I could,” Bybee said.

George and Cooper politely went about their visit with Slessinger and his staff the next day. It was the equivalent of a full-court press as far as a walk-on’s recruitment goes. There was a PowerPoint presentation. Slessinger made sure to let Bybee know the Privateers had walk-ons emerge as rotation players in past years.

It was intriguing. But George knew, the second Cooper got that phone call from Comar, where his son was going.

“He’s been grinning like a possum ever since he got that call,” George said. “You can’t wipe the smile off his face.”

Whether he plays significant minutes or not, Bybee will definitely bring an upbeat demeanor to the Hoosier program.

Olney Central coach Mike Burris recalls all of the screaming his sixth-man delivered from the bench for a squad with four D-I recruits. Bybee was a gym rat who literally asked for keys to the gym. He was just behind a guard, Wade Coomer, who hit 48 percent from 3.

Bybee, a 6-foot-1 guard, made 40.7 percent of his 3s as a sophomore.

“Not knocking those guys at all, but how Cooper led in the locker room, always had a smile on his face, we’ll miss that more than the 6-8 kid at Northern Illinois, the 6-10 kid at North Dakota State, or the 6-6 kid at Hampton,” Burris said. “We’ll miss his voice and his leadership.”

For an IU team that’s working toward better chemistry and cohesion, Bybee can help.

He can’t help, however, when it comes to giving the Ellettsville crowd much of an inside scoop on IU’s comings and goings.

Bybee is tight-lipped when it comes to talking about himself, even when he’s helping out around the mill at Bybee Stone Company, the family business. His father had to pry just to find out what number he was wearing.

“Everybody’s asking,” George told his son.

Cooper figured he was getting No. 0 when he was placed at Romeo Langford’s old locker.

That wasn’t Bybee’s number at Edgewood. He was No. 14 there, as well as his freshman season at Olney Central. But JUCO apparel budgets aren’t fat, and Olney’s Under Armour jerseys ran a little big. So when Erikas Jakstys, a guard from London, England, returned home for a pro contract, No. 0 came open. It fit.

It just happened to be that No. 0 came open for Bybee’s arrival at IU, as well.

“It’s funny because my dad grew up a Hoosier fan, he loves every second of it, as does my whole family,” Bybee said. “They don’t ask as many questions as I thought, which is kind of nice, because I’m kind of reserved in that sense. I don’t like to talk about stuff like that.

“But it’s awesome the support they show, from when I was a senior in high school to when I was a freshman at a junior college in the middle of nowhere. Now I’m here at IU.”

That means Cooper could give an all-access tour of Assembly Hall on Father’s Day. It was somewhat returning the favor, as George once got a 10-year-old Cooper a tour of the equipment room with Rusty Stillions.

This time around, it was George who was wide-eyed as he gazed into an expanse of seats surrounding the hardwood.

“I’ve been to Assembly Hall a thousand times, but it’s never been plum empty, standing at center court,” George said. “I was thinking, ‘Good lord, how does anybody play on this court, especially when there are people here?’”

Cooper is about to find out what that’s like at Hoosier Hysteria this weekend.

It’s a rare feat, as he will be Edgewood’s first representative on an IU basketball roster. Vernon Pfaff played for Ellettsville High before suiting up for the Hoosiers from 1963-67.

“Every single time I walk in here I just tell myself how blessed I am,” Bybee said. “Every time I look at the banners — I mean, I just look around and I’m just so grateful to be here.

“I’m going to come in and work every single day. Whatever the coaching staff needs from me, I’m going to work my tail off and just try to help build this program.”