Happily married, doing what she loves and giving back in every way… what’s her secret?
By Deborah Hamilton-Lynne, Photos by Shannon Mcintyre
Sally Brown— AKA Mrs. Mack Brown—has a secret. It permeates her being. When asked what people would be surprised to know about her, Sally replies that she is shy, she loves books, she rides horses and plays golf with Mack when time allows. Sally Brown is all of the things many women aspire to be—happily married, doing what she loves, using her talents and connections to give back. She is beautiful and charming, though she seems not to know it. Sally Brown is comfortable in her own skin and enjoys her life just as it is. Her secret? Sally Brown is a happy woman. Dare I repeat that? Yes, Sally Brown is happy, and her happiness finds its way into everything she does.
Please note that I am not saying that Sally Brown is content because according to her there is a lot to be done —building the new Rise School, finding a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy and bringing more children with congenital heart disease to Austin for critical medical attention. Although she is quiet and reserved, it is clear that she carefully chooses her words, and her mind is always churning. What she does say makes an impact and leaves an impression, and the woman flat out gets things done. Her happiness comes from within, and she doesn’t mind spreading it around.
The daughter of a marine, Sally and her family moved around a lot. Always passionate about helping people, she attended UC Berkley, got a degree in nursing and became a nurse. Happiness got in the way.
“I thought it would be a good career for me, but I wasn’t a good nurse, and I thought I would be because I was compassionate and loved helping people,” Brown tells me. “But I would pass out every time I saw blood, and things stayed with me. I took things too hard, and I wanted to have something that made me happy.”
So she followed her heart, acknowledged her love of design and building, and shifted to architecture—a degree and a career path that made her happy. Fast forward several years to a North Carolina horse farm where the young single mother felt the pull to start something new. Sally took the farm, subdivided it and discovered a passion and aptitude for real estate development.
“It started because I had a horse farm and a lot of land,” Brown tells me. “I bought the farm and enjoyed that, but I eventually decided to subdivide the land and build houses on it. The process was so much fun for me that I thought, well, maybe I want to buy other properties and develop the land like this. I met a woman, Chesley Baity, who owned the best track of land in the whole Chapel Hill area…people always wanted to buy it, but she had no interest in selling it. She was quite a feminist, and we had a long and deep friendship. She was in her 80s and I was in my 30s.
We talked a lot about what I wanted to do as far as a career. She had refused to sell her land to male developers. She was kind to me because she not only sold me the land but she set up a system to finance me as I was developing it. I named that first neighborhood after her—it was called Chesley. From there I went on to other large pieces of land. What I learned from that was that I spent about 90 per cent of my time on the houses and 10 per cent of my time on the infrastructure, while I was making about 90 percent of my money from the infrastructure and 10 percent from the houses.
So I decided to switch what I was doing, and from that point on, everything I did became decidedly unglamorous—building the roads, the sewers. I learned that developing a piece of land was not unlike building in a way—before the land was developed, you had to walk it and understand it. It was like creating a sculpture, and I really enjoyed it.”
Active in the community, Sally was happily building her business and raising her two young sons when a longtime friend started trying to fix her up with the then- coach of the Tar Heels football team, Mack Brown. Initially she resisted because she didn’t know anything about sports, didn’t particularly like football and ultimately assumed the two would have nothing in common. Her determined friend persisted and arranged a surprise blind date.
“The surprise part of it was I had no idea it was going to be a date,” she says. “We had a mutual friend who was a sports reporter who really liked Mack, and he was also an old friend of mine—he kept trying to introduce us, but I felt like it wouldn’t fit. Finally my friend told me that a group of people were meeting for dinner, and when I got there it was just the two of us—Mack and me. We hit it off, and we have been together ever since.”
The story goes that one day during the start of football season, Mack Brown told his coaching staff in the morning that he was getting married that day. He then phoned Sally, picked her up, took her to lunch at Burger King, went across the state line to Dillon, South Carolina, got married in a wedding chapel in 10 to 15 minutes and was back in time for afternoon practice. Sally smiled after hearing the tale again.
“That is pretty true. We had talked about getting married, and we knew that we would be married at some point, but we kind of assumed that it would be the next spring because of football season. I had been through one season as a girlfriend but never as a wife. But then his house sold and his youngest daughter moved in with me, and she would say to her dad, ‘If you get married, you can move in too.’ She was already there, and it was getting complicated— both of our careers were really busy. So he called me at work one day and asked what my appointment schedule was like. I told him, and he said I can pick you up at 11, and we can go to Dillon and get married. I said OK, and we did. We still go to Burger King for anniversary dinner.”
The couple blended families with her two sons and his two daughters, and they became one extremely busy pair: Mack with his coaching and athletic duties, Sally with her thriving business, and both with family and community involvement. Although Mack had several offers to leave UNC, when the call finally came from the Longhorns, he accepted—the family moved to Austin in 1997. Moving to Austin and experiencing the intensity of the UT football culture was a shift for Sally, but headed into their 16th football season, she has come to embrace this football-loving city happily.
“Austin is such a physically beautiful place, and that is really important to me. I love the lakes. I love the hills and the views. It is very beautiful. I love Town Lake, Mt. Bonnell and the 360 bridge. I also like the informality of Austin. I love the fact that every day, there is so much to do here. When we can, we love to go out to eat with Augie (Garrido, the UT baseball coach) because he is such a foodie and always takes us to new restaurants. Great restaurants, a festival every weekend and people are outside all of the time. It’s just a great outdoor city. Austin is a happy place.”
Sally is also very much a part of the Longhorn family. Many people think of her as the “mother” of the team, but Sally sees herself in a different role.
“I am the self -indulgent aunt,” she counters. “It is my life. People will tell me I’m the mother of the team, and I say no, they have great mothers, and I don’t have to discipline them. I am not the one that ever deals with that. I never say no to them. I am the one they can come to when they have problems. I am the one that can just listen to them and have nothing but kindness for them. Beyond the football field, they are human beings, and on Saturday they might be playing at times when they are devastated…they might have a girlfriend that just broke up with them or they have a favorite aunt that just passed away. They have a life separate from football, and it affects them. All in all, they are incredibly fun. There is nothing more fun than boys who are 18 to 22. They are affectionate, funny and engaging. One of my favorite evenings every year is when we have a team karaoke party. All of the freshmen have to get up and sing, and you really get to see their personalities. They pick their songs and you get a glimpse of what they will be like for the next four years. I like those events a lot.”
So what is it that makes Sally Brown unhappy, and what is her secret for avoiding it? She dislikes the critics of her husband and his job performance and decisions.
“The worst part of being the wife of a coach is the critics. You can’t avoid listening to it because it is always there. We don’t get the paper, so I don’t read that. I learned when I got to Austin that coaching in North Carolina was not like it is here. This is a different environment. It is a much more aggressive environment. I learned in the early years that when I read everything I sometimes could not be professional and kind to the reporters when I saw them on the practice field. So the only way for me to be professional with them was not to read what they wrote. I don’t read the Statesman. I hear what is said because people will come up to me and say, ‘I’m so sorry’ about whatever was written about Mack, or ‘I defended your husband,’ but I avoid reading about Mack and the team and hearing the commentary on TV.”
Instead she finds joy in celebrating in the locker room after a win—all wins bring the same happiness—those considered to be large and small. A true coach’s wife, she says a win is a win.
She has accepted the scrutiny and intensity of Mack’s position, and the couple has used it as a platform for work in the community. The couple has received numerous accolades for their work including being honored by Caritas as “Citizens of the Year” in 2008 and by The NFL Alumni Association’s Caring For Kids as the “Couple of the Year” in 2012. The Browns have also endorsed a new Texas license plate, which is designed to raise public awareness for child abuse and neglect and the need for Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA ) volunteers.
In August 2011 Mack and Sally were honored for their longstanding, personal commitment to the Rise School of Austin. As a 60th birthday surprise for her husband, a permanent site for the Rise School was unveiled, named the Sally and Mack Brown Rise School of Austin. Sally continues her passion for architecture and building by renovating houses and moving on to the next project. Her most recent project: a stunning house on Windsor Road once owned by friends Donna and Steve Hicks. Coach Brown frequently jokes that he has to call Sally before leaving the office, “just to be sure I’m coming home to the right house.” For her, choosing a house is all about light and a feeling.
“I like to buy and fix up houses. I like to say that the houses will talk to you and tell you what they need. If you pay attention, you can fix them up. I redid the foyer stairwell on the Windsor house and opened it up. You just know when you are doing something right.”
Moving into a new lakeside home on the da y of our interview didn’t seem to concern Sally, who reiterated her need to constantly stay busy and involved. The thing that brings her most happiness is seeing a project through from beginning to end.
“I need projects,” she says. “I like redoing houses and I like creating and working on events. I approach projects like a business. I like to start things and see them to the end. I like completion.”
Thinking that inevitably Coach Brown will retire, I ask what lies ahead for the Browns. She doesn’t want to speculate on that possibility or the timing of it and likes to focus on the good things going on in her life right now.
“There is nothing that I am doing that I would want to change,” she says. “My life is good. We have four new grandbabies… the oldest is two-and-a-half—that has changed our lives. I love spending time with them. Three of our four children live in Austin and one in Los Angeles. I also have my horses. We both like to golf. We are up for anything water oriented. Mack loves to fish. It gives him a lot of peace. We like boating. We like to walk. We always look forward to spending quiet time at our house in the mountains of North Carolina, in Linville. It is a real escape for us.”
Perched comfortably in a chair in the library at the Lake Austin Spa, Sally smiles slightly, sighing a happy sigh, and I can tell that she is wishing she was in those mountains with her family as our interview concludes. She has graciously shared her simple secret with me—do what makes you happy, and the rest will fall into place. I leave happy and determined to do just that.
The backstory behind one of Austin’s most successful fundraising events: Mack, Jack and McConaughey
“It came about because last year, just like every spring, every night was booked up, and we had so many events that we attended and were involved with—the golf tournaments, the dinners, the events. It’s just constant in the spring because we really do want to give back to the community, and there is a small window of our time that we are able to do that. We love to help raise funds for things we find compelling. We met Jack Ingram and were charmed by him. He had an idea and sent a text to Mack late one night asking, ‘What do you think about doing a golf tournament and fundraising weekend like the Ben, Willie and Darryl event? What if we incorporate all of our charity e vents into this one event and put all of our energies into that?’ We talked to a few people about it, and everyone thought it was a great idea. We decided to get our friend Matthew [McConaughey] involved in it because he brings another element to it. It all came together quickly.”
“Everybody had their role, and that was what made it so much fun. We all had things we were good at doing. It was fun for us for so many reasons. We have been friends with Matthew and [his wife]Camilla for a long time, and we treasure our relationship with them. Camilla was the force behind the fashion show, and I am so proud of her. She has really blossomed. Also it has been such a treat to get to know Jack and [his wife]Amy. He is so darn cute. What we wanted to create was an event that was not like other events. We didn’t want just another golf tournament, just another concert, just another dinner—we wanted to make it something special. I think we created that.”
The story behind Mack and Sally’s beneficiaries
The Rise School of Austin
“Our involvement with the Rise Schools started a long time ago. When Mack was still coaching at North Carolina, we played a bowl game against Alabama and got to meet and become dear friends with Gene and Ruth Ann Stallings, who founded the school in Tuscaloosa. Many years later we came to Texas, and Gene called me and said, ‘Sally, I want you to start a Rise School.’ I said, ‘I don’t know anybody here—I just moved here! But when it becomes the right time, I will do it.’
A couple years later I met a young woman named Gina Hoffman and her husband, Bill. They had just had twins, and one of the daughters had Downs Syndrome. They found us through the Rise School in Tuscaloosa, and I thought, ‘This is my opportunity. This is the time to do it.’
So Gina and I started to meet with groups of women asking for help. We obtained an affiliation with the University of Texas, and once it was given, we had a short window of time to get a physical presence. We needed to raise some money quickly to open a small school to serve a few kids. One of the first luncheons we had I invited Donna Hicks, Patty Hufines and people who all became integral to founding and supporting the school. Donna not only wrote a check but she served on the board, stuck with it and worked hard.
I have met so many amazing people through my involvement with the school. Our involvement has always been something we have felt good about. We are honored and humbled to have our name on it because we haven’t worked nearly as hard as some other people have, but we have been consistent.”
“Heart gift is one of my favorite charities because it is such a tangible gift of life and you can see the results quickly. These are children that have life-threatening heart issues that just need medical attention to become completely fixed—not just helped, but given the gift of life. Heart Gift brings these children into Austin, where they have their heart repaired. While they are here, they also get dental work and any other medical attention they need. It all just gets done. It is one of those really great but simple, workable concepts that is incredible.”
“Tim Revell called me out of the blue and wanted to meet for coffee. He needed advice for ways to raise funds for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease I had never heard of. Most people have never heard of it actually, and I find that incredible. Tim educated me—he has a young son that was diagnosed with Duchenne, and so he had learned a lot about it. While there are a lot of organizations that help with MD, they mainly help with the symptoms. This group is different—this group is looking a cure. These boys do not live into their 20s. They never become adults and it is 100 percent fatal, but there is a lot of promising research going on right now, and it gives me a huge amount of hope for these boys. So I offered to make Cure Duchenne the charity for our UT coaches’ wives group that year. He and his family came to a game and sat in a box with the wives, and after we got to know him well we organized our first annual Cure Duchenne event. For it to be sustainable I couldn’t have the coaches’ wives group doing it every year, so we were lucky to be able to fold it into the MJM event.”
Makeup by Lauren Lumsden, Rae Cosmetics, 1206 W. 38th St., 512.320.8732; Hair by Brian Hightower, Pinup Salon, 7318 McNeil Dr., 512.258.4244; Shot on location at Lake Austin Spa, 1705 Quinlan Park Road, 512.372.7300, lakeaustin.com