If you lived in Santa Rosa between 1963 and 1984, chances are you have a Raiders story. Maybe you met linebacker Ted Hendricks and his occasional escort, a blow-up doll named Molly. Maybe you partied with the Tooz. Perhaps you were present when defensive tackle Art Thoms impersonated a minister and performed a bogus wedding ceremony at the Bamboo Room.
For 21 years, the Raiders were as much a Santa Rosa summer tradition as horse racing at the Sonoma County Fair, and it's amazing the town ever recovered.
Just about every pro football team at that time trained at a small college, bunking in dorms and eating in the cafeteria. But Al Davis, Oakland's new 33-year-old coach and general manager in 1963, had a vision. He wanted to take his team away from Oakland, but set up shop in a private hotel. Driving north on Highway 101 one day, he spotted the El Rancho Tropicana Hotel and knew he had found the perfect spot.
Long before the era of strip malls and big-box stores, El Rancho was considered the jewel of south Santa Rosa Avenue. It was a tidy, low-slung horseshoe of a place that grew from 25 rooms to 275 (many of them to accommodate the Raiders), with a restaurant/bar and multiple pools. When a football team wasn't staying there, it hosted garden shows, boxing matches and musical acts ranging from Van Morrison to the Blue Oyster Cult. This became the Raiders' home away from home.
John Madden, who spent 12 years with the Raiders, 10 as head coach, pointed out that the team staged mini-camps at the El Rancho, too. And training camp lasted a couple of months in those days, long enough to prepare for and play six exhibition games.
"We were in Santa Rosa three months out of the year," Madden said. "You think of that, and how we practiced then, and they'd probably throw us in jail today."
El Rancho was team's hub
The club planted a couple of practice fields behind the hotel, and built a field house that served as locker room and minimalist weight room. The Raiders had meetings and film sessions in El Rancho's conference rooms, and ate all their meals in the restaurant. The Raiders have a similar arrangement in Napa, and after a recent press conference at the Napa Valley Marriott, Davis said he sees the two training-camp experiences as quite similar. They are -- generally speaking.
But the Marriott has an air of luxury that no one expected in 1970. The Raiders didn't tend the El Rancho fields year-round, and they looked a little shabby for camp. And whereas players can choose among a variety of three-star entrees at dinner in Napa, they got whatever the El Rancho cooks decided to prepare in Santa Rosa.
Perfect working environment
Still, Ron Wolf, who spent 24 years with the Raiders in two separate stints and generally ran the Santa Rosa camp, called the El Rancho a "perfect" working environment.
"We had our own locker room. It was almost right out the back door of your room to the locker room, then right out to the practice field," he said.
The players loved it because they had phones and TV in their rooms, unheard-of frills in typical college settings of the day. They didn't mind being crammed two or three to a room, four or five to a suite. Madden liked the weather. He'd install the running game in the marine layer of the morning, then sweat his players in the afternoon. At night, it was pleasant enough to sleep.