LOS ANGELES --- John Wooden's friends, family and former players all say they didn't need an award from a national magazine to confirm the identity of the greatest coach in American sports history.
Yet the Sporting News made it official Wed-nesday, recognizing the 98-year-old Wooden as the pinnacle of a profession that was redefined by the UCLA coach over his unmatched career in Westwood.
During a luncheon in the John Wooden Room at one of his favorite restaurants in Sherman Oaks, the coach saw the real reward for a life spent teaching, mentoring and improving lives: A room packed to overflowing with the recipients of those lessons, from his daughter, Nan, to current UCLA coach Ben Howland, to former Bruins center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"I thank you all for the very kind words," Wooden said in a voice altered but not slowed by age. "No one can really honestly be the very best, no one ... (but) these youngsters that have spoken -- and some of them aren't so young anymore -- they're the ones that make the coaches."
Former Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lom-bardi was second behind Wooden, who received 57 first-place votes from a panel of 118 sports experts assembled by Sporting News . Alabama football coach Bear Bryant was third, with the NBA's Phil Jackson and football's Don Shula fifth.
Wooden arrived at the luncheon in a wheelchair after a series of minor health setbacks in recent years, but the coach still has an appetite both for conversation and a hearty lunch. He sat at a table with Howland, UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero and former players Abdul-Jabbar, Marques Johnson and Andy Hill, while several other players gathered next to him.
"You get older, your memory gets a little bad, but a lot of other things get worse," Wooden said during a short lapse in his train of thought.
Wooden won 10 national championships at UCLA, winning more than 80 percent of his games over 27 seasons.
The Indiana native has been in the Basketball Hall of Fame since 1961, and has kept busy as a speaker and teacher since his retirement from UCLA in 1975.
"It was really very easy, I think, for the people on the panel to vote for this award," said Howland, who has reached three Final Fours in his first six seasons at UCLA. "He was the greatest teacher ever. His integrity, the way he lives his life, is a model for all of us."