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Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, talks to President Ronald Reagan, middle, and President-elect George Bush, right, on December 7, 1988.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, left, talks to President Ronald Reagan, middle, and President-elect George Bush, right, on December 7, 1988. (Mike Sargent/AFPGetty Images/TNS)

Mikhail Gorbachev's blue Illinois football jersey is kept neatly folded in an old equipment room in Champaign.

The No. 1 jersey was never delivered 30 years ago as intended to the general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Neither were the similar jerseys now stacked alongside Gorbachev's: one each for former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush, who had succeeded Reagan earlier that year.

Pulling off a college football game halfway around the world, in a nation with a poor economy and even worse understanding of the sport, proved too difficult, and the trip was scrapped about two months before the scheduled kickoff. The game was played instead at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the No. 22 Illini beat the fifth-ranked Trojans 14-13.

Illinois announced two weeks ago it will open the 2021 season in Dublin against Nebraska. It will be the program's first overseas game and the eighth college football game in Ireland.

Even in 1989, international games weren't unheard of. Tokyo hosted an annual American college football game from 1976 to 1993, including Notre Dame versus Miami in 1979.

But playing in the Soviet Union was "a fantasy," said former Illinois coach John Mackovic (1988-91). U.S. football teams still haven't played a game in Russia.

The Glasnost Bowl was marketed as a game of significant magnitude. For the football programs, it was not so much a political statement as an opportunity for global exposure.

The game was to air nationally on ABC on Labor Day, a week before the 1989 season kicked off for most programs.

"It was a nice opportunity to show that maybe Americans and Russians were getting along better," Mackovic told the Tribune recently. "As we met with Russian reps, nobody said, 'This would be good for the two countries.'

"What I was telling players was: 'This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. You may never get a chance to visit Russia again, for one thing.' Just to open their eyes to the rest of the world. I always wanted them to explore and know more about our world."

It was a novel idea but impossible to execute.

It is far easier for sports with smaller rosters such as basketball to play games overseas than football, with its large rosters, abundant coaching and support staffs and heavy equipment. Traveling overseas for exhibition games has become almost commonplace for college basketball teams; Illinois played in Italy this summer.

International football games take far more effort. The Glasnost Bowl was not the only overseas trip to fall through. In 1996, the Haka Bowl scheduled for New Zealand between teams from the Pac-10 and Western Athletic conferences was scrapped because the NCAA revoked the game's certification over financial concerns. In 2013, bowl games proposed for Dublin and Dubai ran into similar NCAA certification impediments.

The obstacles were plentiful - almost laughable - as Illinois prepared for the Glasnost Bowl.

Raycom Sports and Entertainment, a sports broadcasting and event management company, negotiated with the local government in Moscow and would retain control of ticket sales. After a preliminary agreement, Raycom and the game's promoter sued each other. In June 1989, the event was called off.

When Mackovic traveled to Moscow with USC representatives to survey the arrangements, he realized it might have been a bit of a pipe dream.

"I guess what went through our minds was, 'How in the world are they going to make this work?' " he said. "But if they say it'll work, well, OK."

The Russians were so unknowledgeable about football, they asked Mackovic how many ambulances he would need for the game. He told them Illinois always had one on hand as a precaution.

"They said, 'Well, you'll need to take away the dead.' I said, 'Well, we're not counting on anyone dying.' They thought the game was vicious like that, that we killed off players. They assured us a hospital was close by."

Logistically, the game was a nightmare. The teams were tasked with finding goal posts or locating a welder in Russia to assemble some. They were responsible for bringing every necessary item, from tape to ice machines.

To save money, the teams were scheduled to fly together with all of their equipment.

"All these little things starting adding up, and the list got gigantic," former Illinois associate athletic director Dana Brenner said. "How are you going to get all that on a 747 with both teams? Everyone was in agreement that while the idea was terrific and it was a great life experience for everyone, just the enormous amount of logistical problems made us say, 'Hey, we can't pull this off.' "

Converting Dynamo Stadium, a soccer arena, into a football field meant the end zone would have butted against a wall - similar to the problem Illinois encountered when it played Northwestern at Wrigley Field in 2010.

The dressing rooms, Mackovic said, would not have fit the entire team even if they were standing shoulder to shoulder. The team hotel rooms were mostly bare besides two single beds.

"We started talking internally: 'Boy, is this going to be really difficult to do,' " said Andy Dixon, Illinois' former head equipment manager. "We went over all the things we'd have to take: our own food, our own chefs, our own toilet paper. Electrical converters. Our own sky lift for video. Even though it was exciting, we knew it would be difficult."

School administrators acknowledged turmoil in the area, but there also were signs of the Soviet Union's impending fall and improving relations with the U.S.

In 1987, the countries had agreed to scrap intermediate-range nuclear missiles. The Revolutions of 1989 saw the toppling of Soviet-imposed communist regimes in central and eastern Europe.

Two months after the scheduled date of the Glasnost Bowl, mass public rallies led to the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president on Dec. 25, 1991, and the U.S. recognized the independence of Soviet republics.

"There was a lot of unrest and change occurring in Eastern Europe," Brenner said. "Everyone thought it could be a great experience for both countries if done in a positive manner. Everyone felt good about the decision (to play in Moscow)."

Any political ramifications of the game were largely lost on the players, some of them said. They had secured passports and been photographed for game promotions. They were hyped about playing in a high-profile game against a prestigious opponent and - for many - traveling overseas for the first time.

"I don't think a lot of us thought about the political part," said Mike Bellamy, the Illini's current running backs coach, who played wide receiver for Illinois in 1988-89. "We were 20-year-old kids. We were excited about the big deal college football was making about it and playing USC."

When players learned the trip was off, disappointment was temporary.

"We were looking forward to it, going out of the country," said former Illini running back Howard Griffith (1987-90). "Telling us we were going out to California for a week, that was cool (too). The whole Ice Cube culture was happening. We had some teammates from out there. We stayed maybe in Santa Monica, stayed at some four- or five-star resort. It was fun."

Mackovic was determined to make the best of it and took the players to California for the week, a lengthy trip that the NCAA would not approve today, he gleefully pointed out.

"We turned lemons into lemonade and booked the whole week," he said. "We took the team to Disneyland. We treated it like a mini bowl trip. They loved it. The weather was nice."

And the game was even nicer for the Illini.

Jeff George threw two touchdown passes in the final six minutes, including a 20-yarder to Steve Williams with 2 minutes, 19 seconds left, to erase a 13-0 deficit and clinch the upset.

USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, a redshirt freshman starting in place of the injured Pat O'Hara, was picked off by Illinois' Henry Jones with less than two minutes remaining.

Both teams went on to have impressive seasons. Led by linebacker Junior Seau, the Pac-10 defensive player of the year, the Trojans beat No. 3 Michigan in the Rose Bowl and wound up eighth in the final AP poll.

Illinois finished 10-2 and ranked No. 10 after a Citrus Bowl victory against No. 16 Virginia.

"It was quite a weekend," Mackovic said of the game at USC.

And a much shorter plane ride home than they originally expected.

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