As the rookie head coach of the Chicago Rush in the newly reorganized Arena Football League, former star player Bob McMillen is much more than just an Xs and Os guy.
He has to be, in a league with a new business plan (much lower salaries for the players) that hopefully will avoid the financial problems that caused Arena Football to take a one-year hiatus in 2009 to change its game plan.
McMillen graduated from Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst, attended College of DuPage and went on to become a three-time all-American at Benedictine University in Lisle. After a 13-year career in the AFL, McMillen was honored as one of the league's all-time greatest 20 players, and he's off to an impressive start as a coach.
In his new role, McMillen wears a lot of hats as he shuttles from his Naperville home to the team offices in Des Plaines, a practice facility in Palatine and an 18-game season that currently has the Rush standing tall at 9-3.
McMillen helps set up the practice field with padding around the walls just like an Arena game field, and he prepares lunch and dinner for all 24 of his players in addition to all the other tasks on the field and off that a football coach must perform.
The result leads to many 12- to 14-hour days, but he insists there's no job he'd rather be doing, and he still makes time to be a husband and a father of three children (ages 4-13).
The burly McMillen still looks pumped up enough to play fullback and linebacker, which he did from 1995-2007. But he has spent the past three seasons as an assistant coach, two on former Rush head coach Mike Hohensee's staff, and one with the Chicago Slaughter in 2009, when the Rush was being reorganized. Running the show is a major lifestyle change.
"It's a lot more work," McMillen said shortly after limping into his office on a surgically repaired ankle that might need additional work. "I'm here longer hours, I go from setting up the field at 6 o'clock in the morning, then you have your meetings and your practice, and you have meetings afterward."
Rush players make only about $400 per game, but since Vienna Beef is a team sponsor, they get lunch delivered every day, and it is served by the coaching staff. A trade-off deal has been worked out with area restaurants where the players can eat for free every day.
The Rush staff prepares lunch for the players: hot dogs, Italian beef or corned beef.
"Then we clean up after them," McMillen said. "You're usually getting out of the practice facility anytime between 1 or 2 in the afternoon, then I come here (the Des Plaines office) and do paperwork for the following day or deal with any kind of transactions.
"But I love it. I enjoy getting up in the morning and coming to work."
The Rush's most recent victory, 58-30 over the Kansas City Command, came before last weekend's bye and gave McMillen's squad a two-game lead in the Central Division of the National Conference. Only two teams in the 18-team league have a better record.
McMillen talks often about playing "Rush Football" and "tough football."
"It's just the only way I know how to play the game," he said. "Giving 100 percent every time you're on the game field or at practice. You're always trying to get better. I never was the best athlete. I never was the fastest guy out there. But I was the guy who was going to try to work his butt off to compete with those guys who were faster and better athletes.
"I think if we're more physical than the other team, and we can wear them down at the end of the game, we're going to come out ahead."
It's a testament to McMillen's work ethic that he was honored as one of the 20 greatest players in a league that has been around for 25 years, even though his offensive position was running back in a league that is dominated by the pass. "It certainly wasn't a glamour position," he said. "I was a glorified offensive lineman."
Still, he retired as the second-leading rusher in AFL history with 1,508 yards and the fifth most rushing touchdowns (85). He is one of only two players in league history to win the Arena Bowl with three teams, the Arizona Rattlers (1997), San Jose SaberCats (2002) and the Rush (2006).
In addition to hard work, McMillen believes strongly in instilling a team concept.
"The way we try to mold this team is to be unselfish," he said. "It's not about one guy; it's the whole team. It's not about who's getting how many touchdowns; it's about winning football games.
"When I talk to the team, it's always 'we' or 'us' or 'our.' It's not about me. Yes, I'm the head coach, but it's all of us who are doing this together, and we need to be on the same page for it to be successful."
That approach is working extremely well so far. But getting players to buy into any ideology in the new AFL is more difficult than it was in 2008, when the average salary was $80,000, most of the players made between $40,000 and $50,000, and the league's superstars made up to $190,000. Now players get $400 a game and three from each team can be designated "franchise players" at $1,000 per game. The goal is to increase salaries at a more modest rate to preserve financial integrity.
"It's tougher to get the veterans that have lived that lifestyle in the past, back in 2008," McMillen said. "The rookies, it's not as hard because there's not much more football. If they don't make it to the NFL, they have the CFL (Canadian Football League) where you're locked in to a contract for two years. You have the UFL (United Football League), but they only have five teams.
"I believe Arena Football's the main league out there. It's better NFL exposure, and TV, the contacts that we have with player personnel in the NFL and the CFL and everything else."
McMillen has experienced both ends of the spectrum. When he started in 1995, he was making $400 a game. His love for his present position comes in part from the dedication of assistants he respects as friends and as coaches and from a group of players that have bought into his program.
"It's a joy to see guys that are there early and on the field early warming up and doing the little things to get better," McMillen said. "I think that shows with our record, why we're 9-3, because the guys are doing the little things to help us win and be successful."