Having been part of three Arena Bowl champion teams as a player, Chicago Rush head coach Bob McMillen isn't about to settle for last year's 13-5 campaign, which ended one week short of the title game.
So, how do you improve on 13-5? The runner-up for Arena League coach of the year in 2011 didn't blink when asked.
"Go 14-4," McMillen said without hesitation as he prepared for his second season as head coach. "That's the only way to do it. Just keep building every week. Everyone's goal right now is to go win a championship. Our (immediate) goal is to win Week One. If you win Week One and get better going into Week Two, you'll be successful in Week Two, and by the end of the season we'll be where we want to be, and that's going into the playoffs."
Despite the ever-changing personnel that comes with a minor-league professional football team, McMillen believes he has the right mix: 12 veterans and 12 rookies.
Loyal Rush fans are well-acquainted with some of the team's biggest stars from last season, who return to action at 7 p.m. Saturday in the season opener at Allstate Arena in Rosemont.
Quarterback Russ Michna, a Conant High School and Western Illinois graduate, is back. Michna completed 66.6 percent of his passes last season for 65 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, despite missing the last five games with an ankle injury.
Also returning is his top receiver, Reggie Gray, who caught 130 passes for 1,969 yards and 49 touchdowns in 2011.
On defense, the Rush return their two biggest playmakers: cornerback Vic Hall (15 interceptions, 114 tackles and 24 pass breakups), and linebacker Kelvin Morris (9 interceptions).
McMillen, a Naperville resident, is a graduate of Immaculate Conception High School in Elmhurst and a three-time all-American at Illinois Benedictine in Lisle. He spent 13 years as a running back in the Arena League, the last five with the Rush, including the 2006 title team. He ended his playing career second in career rushing yards with 1,508 and fifth in rushing touchdowns with 85.
Since the AFL's reorganization following a year's hiatus in 2009, player salaries have dropped precipitously, which was designed to make the league more sustainable financially. But that requires most players to hold down other jobs, and McMillen knows that it takes a special person to make a serious commitment to football for the $400 a game that most players receive.
"It's tough," he said. "You have to have the right guys. You have to have guys that want to come to work every day, and that's what we do here -- we try to build guys with character. We may pass on a better athlete, (if) he's a troublemaker.
"But we're excited about the guys that come here because they're excited to be here. One thing I say to them, 'When you put your head down on the pillow at night, I want you to be excited you're here, and that you're going to help us win a championship,' and those are the guys we've got."