In the SEC, football and wedding etiquette align with an important rule: don't schedule nuptials on game day
When Chase Barnes popped the question to his longtime girlfriend last October, one of his first calls was to his grandfather. The family had been waiting for Chase to finally propose to his girlfriend since high school and through their four years at Alabama. It was a joyous occasion—two Tuscaloosa families would be joining together as one.
Shortly after congratulations were delivered, Skipper Falls, Barnes's grandfather and a man he reveres, had to impart a little wisdom to the young lad.
"He congratulates us on getting engaged," Barnes recalls. "And then he said, 'Whatever you do, do not get married during football season or I'm not coming to the wedding.' "
He was kidding. Sort of.
Falls is an old-school Alabama fan who grew up rooting for the Crimson Tide. He spends every Saturday home game on the Quad, and sits with family and friends in the same seats he has had for years. And when the Crimson Tide aren't at home, well, he travels with them—getting in his RV to make road trips across SEC country, from Baton Rouge, La., to College Station, Texas. His Saturdays from September through the beginning of December are pretty much booked up.
Unless you're in some part of the country that big-time college football doesn't touch, a wedding invitation for a fall Saturday probably results in a heated discussion with your significant other. Sometimes circumstances allow you to work around it: TVs at the bar during the cocktail hour and reception, a radio with headphones slipped up your sleeve or having that one single friend who doesn't have anyone to tell him, "Put that away!" when he watches the third quarter on his phone.
Weddings in SEC country? When people in that part of the football-crazed South get an invite to Saturday nuptials in the fall (if it isn't met with immediate outright disgust first), they have no problem with checking the "Regrets" box.
"No one messes with SEC football," says Lynda Jungkind, owner and publisher of Premier Bride and a former wedding planner. "Number one, I love SEC football and I'm not going to miss it. Saturday is game day at the Jungkind household."
Jungkind, who resides in Jackson, Miss.—and who is a diehard Arkansas fan—has a slew of horror stories of brides not doing proper planning and consulting the college football slate when scheduling their weddings. And that was before the Internet made that task easier. When Jungkind runs into a bride thinking about scheduling a fall wedding in the South, she offers three pieces of advice:
1. Choose a bye week or weak nonconference game.
2. Accept that not everyone will come.
3. How about a spring wedding?
"I had a bride, who used to work for me, she got married in the afternoon," Jungkind says. "But the reception was at her parents' home and it was an outdoor wedding and they didn't have any TVs set up. They were Mississippi State fans and the guests designated one person to report the score back from the car radio. And Arkansas was playing Texas A&M that day and my husband kept disappearing and going to our car to check that score. That's just how it is. You just learn to live with it."
That's what Barnes and his fiancee, Caroline Keeney, had to do. They were married Oct. 31 in Tuscaloosa. (Don't worry, Grandpa was there; it was during the Tide's bye week.) Caroline was insistent on having a fall wedding. She's a Southern girl who didn't want to be a melting bride in the blistering Alabama heat, so the summer was out. Winter would have been O.K., but there are not a lot of dates available because of the holidays. And spring? Well, everyone else books in the spring, so you're hoping you don't accidentally plan the same date as someone else.
Fall it was.
Keeney played tennis at Alabama and went to football games with Barnes, but he is admittedly the bigger fan. He's been going to Tide games since he was a kid, so even he got a little hesitant when she wouldn't budge on the fall date.
"I've been to several weddings in the fall, where you have the game on and you end up with the bar filled with guys at the reception and no one on the dance floor," Barnes, 26, says. "And that's no good. That's terrible for the bride."
So, the pair compromised and settled on Oct. 31.
"That it ended up on Halloween, turned out to be an even bigger joke, because I love Halloween," Keeney, also 26, says. "My mom was actually the one that texted me when they came out with the football schedule last year and said, 'October 31st—off weekend. Halloween. It's perfect.' Of course, we had a couple of friends [who were fans of] other schools, who complained their teams [were] playing."
The issue that Barnes and Keeney kept running into was that since it was a bye week for Alabama, that meant any couple trying to plan a date in the fall would also be looking at Oct. 31. Booking the church, the venue, the hotels, the florist, a photographer, music—even a priest!—turned into a bigger ordeal than just settling on a fall date. Especially for a wedding that had 450 people.
"You have to really do all the big stuff in a week after you get engaged," Keeney says.
Fortunately, they opted against the outdoor wedding. Have you ever tried to find tents available for rent during football season in the South? Good luck.
That's why the biggest piece of advice those in the wedding industry down south give brides—before picking a day—is to consult the football schedule. Even in the spring. (Spring games. Duh.)
"I think if you're having your wedding in a college town or the surrounding areas, you run the risk of having a few no-shows," says Marissa Kloess, director of advertising for Southern Weddings magazine—and an Alabama fan who planned her wedding for after the SEC championship in 2008. "That's why checking the schedule is so important. You can get a pretty good idea who will be coming and who won't, based on who is playing."
If you think she's kidding, just ask Cheyenne Martin and her husband, Andy Brown.
When the couple got engaged and started kicking around dates, Cheyenne knew to stay away from game days. She and Andy are huge Tennessee fans, as are most of their families and friends. She wanted to do a destination wedding, in Destin, Fla., which Andy was on board with.
"When we were throwing around dates, I was like, 'Y'all don't want it to be hot, so I think September would be a good time,' " Martin recalled. "I said, 'I know that's football season, so what do you think?' Both he and my dad said, 'Oh no, you're fine.' I was so excited, I didn't think to check to see who we were playing."
About an hour after Cheyenne booked everything for Sept. 26, Andy realized they had made a huge mistake. Then the following exchange happened:
Andy: "Babe, do you know what day you planned that on?"
Cheyenne: "Uh, the 26th."
Andy: Yeah, that's the Tennessee-Florida game. And we're going to be in Florida. And we're UT Fans. What were you thinking?"
The unthinkable had happened. Not only did the Tennessee-bleeding Andy (along with his family, her family and most of their bridal party) have a wedding scheduled on a Saturday, but it was also during a game against one of the Volunteers' biggest rivals—at a venue that would be out-of-state. It was a nightmare scenario.
Cheyenne, to her credit, had an idea. It was still early enough in the summer that the game time had not been set yet by the SEC. Getting grief and ribbing from so many for her monumental gaffe, she wrote an email to the conference asking if they would schedule the game earlier in the day, so it wouldn't interfere with the ceremony and reception.
She never heard back from the SEC, but her email landed in the hands of Mark Kubiak, producer of The Paul Finebaum Show on the SEC Network. Kubiak knew this story could only happen in SEC country, so Finebaum had the couple on his program to talk about their marital misstep. Then, there was one more surprise: The network arranged for Tennessee coach Butch Jones to stop by to greet the couple in person.
"Andy loves Finebaum, adores him," Cheyenne says. "It just spiraled from there. Butch Jones was amazing. Then someone from the Knoxville News called about the story. It ended up being a huge mistake I had made, turned into a really cool thing that happened. I felt like I should get some points for that—he was on the Finebaum Show and got to meet Butch Jones."
The couple's wedding day went off smoothly (even though the Volunteers blew a 13-point lead in the final 10 minutes of a heartbreaking 28–27 loss), despite the start time coinciding with the reception. There were extra TVs at the bar for everyone to watch and Cheyenne surprised Andy with a groom's cake in the shape of the Power T. And, in a nice, fun touch, the rehearsal dinner the night before had a tailgate theme, so everyone who made the trip down could still get a little of that Neyland Stadium atmosphere.
If bringing the tailgate to the wedding isn't your thing, SEC brides and grooms aren't bashful about bringing the wedding to the tailgate.
The weekend before the Oct. 24 Alabama-Tennessee game, Chip Thomas and Karen O'Conner said their "I do's" in the Quad before the Tide's late-afternoon victory. Thomas, an Alabama alum and a lifelong fan, convinced his bride that the best place to exchange vows would be under a tent in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium. Three years earlier, Carl (the Cat) Dunn—a renowned LSU super-fan—and his wife, Risha, got married at Walk On's, a bar less than a mile walk from Tiger Stadium. (This one was Risha's idea.)
"For people who don't necessarily know the intensity of the SEC, it's definitely different," Kloess says.
At the end of the day, football may be what everyone plans around, but the wedding is still paramount. That's why so many couples are willing to try and have it all: a wedding in the fall that nearly everyone attends and doesn't miss a beat when it comes to Alabama. (Or Tennessee or Florida or Georgia or Auburn or, frankly, everywhere else.)
Chase knew how important that was to Caroline, and for the girl of his dreams, how could he disappoint her? There is another game day every week. There is only one wedding day. The pair couldn't be more thrilled that everything was able to work out perfectly. So, after their wedding they jetted off to Nassau, Bahamas, for a weeklong honeymoon.
It wasn't until a few months ago that Caroline looked at their itinerary and wondered why it was a day shorter than they had planned.
"He tells me, 'Yeah, we'll get home, drop our bags off, hop in the car and be in Tuscaloosa in plenty of time,' " Keeney says. "And I said, 'Plenty of time for what?' "
"The LSU game."