CHAMPAIGN — Highlights from the 1990 Citrus Bowl might find their way into the broadcast of Saturday’s Illinois-Virginia football game.
After all, it was the first-ever game between those two programs, which meet again at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
Mike Bellamy, though, doesn’t need to track down the ACC Network broadcast of Saturday’s game to know what happened when the Illini and Cavaliers first met on the football field.
The former Illini wide receiver lived it. And contributed a vital role during the 31-21 win by the Illini on Jan. 1, 1990.
Even three decades later, Bellamy is reminded of the special 1989 season that culminated with John Mackovic’s most successful team winning the program’s fourth New Year’s Day bowl game. It’s also the last time Illinois won a game on college football’s most storied day.
Bellamy just talked with Shawn Moore, the Virginia quarterback who started that game for the Cavaliers and wound up fourth in Heisman Trophy voting in 1990.
Engaged in some trash talk, too, earlier this week.
“He told me, ‘Y’all kicked our butt 30 years ago,’” Bellamy said with a laugh, “‘but we’re going to get you this weekend.’”
The two programs have struggled to consistently find themselves near the top of the college football food chain from the time they met more than 31 years ago. Illinois has had 21 losing seasons since then. Virginia has fared a little better, but has found itself with a losing record in 11 of those subsequent seasons.
But on the first day of the new decade with George H.W. Bush in the White House, Bellamy and the Illini could hardly do anything wrong. Jeff George, playing in his final game at Illinois before he wound up the first pick in the 1990 NFL draft, completed 26 of 38 passes for 321 yards and three touchdowns.
Bellamy, like he was often that season, hauled in eight receptions for a game-high 166 yards. That was the most by an Illini in a bowl game until Walter Young recorded 178 receiving yards in the 2002 Sugar Bowl.
“The thing about it is you want to perform on the biggest stages. That was one of the biggest stages at the time,” Bellamy said. “We knew going into the game we were going to be wide open. Jeff was throwing the ball all around. We were clicking on all cylinders.”
Back before the bowl system became bloated with too many games and too many teams, only 18 bowl games were on the docket for the 1989 season.
Meaning Bellamy and his teammates knew folks would tune in to the ABC broadcast — which had Gary Bender and Dick Vermeil on the call — from Orlando, Fla.
“Everything back then was geared around Jan. 1,” Bellamy said. “If you played on New Year’s Day, you made it.”
Illinois started the 1989 season with a trip to Los Angeles to play Southern Cal. Initially, the two teams were supposed to play in Moscow before the potential Glasnost Bowl was scrapped.
The trip out to the West Coast, though, gave Bellamy and his teammates a chance to check out where they’d really like to spend New Year’s Day in 1990. At the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
“We started off the year by visiting the Rose Bowl before we played USC,” Bellamy said. “Coach Mackovic wanted to give us that vision of what could be possible.”
A 24-10 loss to Michigan on Nov. 4, 1989, at Memorial Stadium derailed those potential Rose Bowl plans. But when Illinois ended the regular season with a 63-14 thumping at Northwestern three weeks later, Bellamy and his teammates knew they’d likely head somewhere warm in the program’s second straight bowl game.
“I don’t think anybody was disappointed in going to Orlando,” Bellamy said. “We came out focused and played like we weren’t disappointed.”
Some of the highlights and memories from the bowl trip extended beyond what transpired on the field on New Year’s day.
“I remember we had a big rap contest, with rap just being the new thing at the time,” Bellamy said. “We had one of the banquets with Jeff and Shawn throwing football across the banquet hall. We did Disney World and all of the amusement parks down there. It felt like what we envisioned a bowl game week feeling like.”
The win against Virginia capped the Illini season at 10-2, the same record the 1983 Big Ten champs finished with. And the same record the 2001 Big Ten champs ended up with.
The victory also continued the successful trend and winning vibes the Flyin’ Illini had established earlier in 1989 on the UI campus.
“We were all friends and we meshed together. We were celebrating each other’s success,” Bellamy said. “You were celebrities around town and treated well. Champaign is what it is. They treat their sports teams like the heroes they are.”
Bellamy has witnessed the Illinois football program up close since his playing days ended, serving two stints as an assistant coach within the last decade. He wasn’t retained by Bret Bielema after the 2020 season ended and Lovie Smith was fired, but he still keeps tabs on what his alma mater is up to this year.
“The memories I have from my playing career are what I have of successful teams, and for some of us, the expectations don’t change,” Bellamy said. “As we started seeing the roller coaster the program went on and as a Monday morning quarterback, you start questioning everything. You fast forward 20-some odd years later when I got back here in a coaching role, I think the loyal fans are still committed to the program. Whatever coach is ahead of it, it has to match what is beneficial for the team they’re putting together. Hopefully the guys in the future continue to fight.”