Cam Inman works the 49ers beat for the Bay Area News Group, and has covered Niners football over the last 20 years. He took some time to chat with The Big Lead about his beginnings as a journalist in California, Jimmy Garoppolo, the time he talked with Al Davis for three hours, and more. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Liam McKeone: Hi, Cam, thanks for taking the time today. In your own words, describe your journey in sports media, from when you first realized you wanted to do this job to how you got to where you are now.
Cam Inman: Well, that’s kind of simple because it’s really the only job I ever envisioned myself doing. That goes back to when I was about to go into high school. Sure enough, by the time I was a senior in high school I had basically turned pro because that’s when I started cashing a paycheck for writing about sports. Even when I was delivering newspapers when I was 10, I was delivering the San Jose News afternoon edition, and now, 35 years later, I’ve been writing for the San Jose News. So it’s kind of a cool, fulfilling my dream that I’ve always wanted to do. When I was in high school, I wrote for the city’s weekly paper called the Cupertino Courier. I covered all their sports. I was also editor of the high school paper. I went down to Cal Poly San Luis-Obispo for college. It was about three hours south. Right away, I reached out to the local paper down there in San Luis-Obispo and I was able to get a part-time job there right away. After my first quarter of school, I said “Thanks, I really appreciated the opportunity,” and they said, “No, no, we got you. You’re ours for four years.”
So basically I had a part-time job working at the newspaper, and that really ingrained that I wanted to be a sports writer. I loved doing it and right after I graduated Cal Poly I got a job in the area about 30 minutes of Santa Maria. I got to live at Pismo Beach for two years as a bachelor, and it was great, but I needed to get back to the Bay Area. It’s where I grew up, it’s where I had always lived. I got a job in a town [in the Bay Area] and at that time there were probably… about 15 or 20 papers in the Bay Area at that point? I got a job, with my foot in the door, covering youth sports, high school sports. I said, ‘Okay, let’s see what we can do with that.’
The pro soccer beat opened up around ‘95, because the MLS was just starting. I wanted to take it on and show I could do a beat, cover some pro sports. I started covering more pro, college, national team soccer. Then I got to start covering the 49ers starting in the 2000 season. Now I’m in my 20th year covering the 49ers and the NFL. I had two stints of 49ers beat guy. The first was 2000-2004. Then I became an NFL columnist and wrote on whatever nighttime game was going on around the country. I did that for a couple years then I got to be a general sports columnists for about five years, I’d say. Got to do every sport, did all the different, you know, major, big assignments, whatever I wanted to do a few days a week.
But as the industry was changing, I kind of adapted with it in that I saw there was such an online presence going. So I said I wanted to be the guy who, if there was breaking news, I wanted to put up an instant-analysis column. It was called Cam at Camp. I think that kept me away from being released, so to speak, with some of my other colleagues. As the layoffs continued, things happened and changed, I was still enjoying it. As bad as I saw the industry was turning, I still wanted to stay in it as long as I could. So I went back on the Niner beat in 2011 when Jim Harbaugh came and the team was getting exciting again.
I’ve been on the beat since 2011, and even though they were the second-worst team in the league last year in terms of the draft order, I feel like I’m covering a contender again … They have personalities on the team. They have star caliber that’s been lacking. They seem to have a pretty good coach-general manager partnership that’s pretty easy, actually, to cover. I’d say they’re pretty transparent and easy to talk to.
All these years later, I’m still very passionate about journalism, especially sports journalism, and I don’t know where the industry is going. I never do. I don’t know where my career is headed from one week to the next, one day to the next, but I do know that I really enjoy covering sports, I enjoy covering football. I know I’m not the best writer, I know I’m not the best reporter. I do love observing things, finding different things that satisfy my curiosity, and bringing them to the forefront, figuring my readers might feel the same.
McKeone: Other reporters I’ve spoken to view their time covering high school sports as a really important time in their career. Do you feel the same way?
Inman: Absolutely. I fully endorse that. From my time covering high schools, which I probably did for 10 years, to this day I go down to a journalism workshop at Cal Poly. It’s for about 25 kids, but it’s been around the country and around the world. They come in for a two-week journalism workshop seminar, basically. For the last 20 years, maybe even 25, I’ve been teaching a class on how to cover high school football. We introduce them to sports journalism that way because it’s a fascinating and wonderful way to get in the business. It teaches you how to get the basics of a story, how to write quickly under deadline, and just the fundamentals of what it takes to be a journalist and reporter. The high school football level … News people have cut back on high school coverage, so they’re only looking for people that go out to cover games for them still. They may not be writing the stories we used to, but if you’re there, you can keep track of stats, if you can get some quotes, if you can compile the key plays, it really develops a fundamental foundation that every journalist needs.
That’s why, when you talk to any sports writer, they look back so fondly on their days covering high school football, because you’re learning how to cover a sport, and you’re doing it with kids who are so innocent. They don’t have an agenda, they aren’t working towards their next multi-million dollar contract. You’re down in the trenches with them, on the sideline. You’re walking right there with them. It’s such an invaluable experience. I actually miss it. I haven’t covered a high school game in 20 years. Big-time supporter.
McKeone: What were the biggest takeaways for you as a journalist when you transitioned from being a columnist back to the beat writer life?
Inman: You know what it is? And it’s really changed with the way the journalism industry has: We’re more based on analysis now, and the why. That carried over from columnist duty to now beat writer duty. Because, especially in football covering the pro beat, a lot of people are watching the game on TV. They’re hearing what the athletes are saying in press conferences. What they want to know is behind-the-scene stuff about why such-and-such took place or what is this guy really like or what do you really think the organization wants to do here and there.
My days as a columnist taught me to have your own independent thinking and makes your judgements, but do it in a way you’re not throwing out irrational stances. They’re more educated guesses and educated opinions. That’s really translated well, and that’s what the audience is looking for. We have a subscription-based business now that we’re almost all in. You have to be able to offer something that’s different from everyone else, something that shows you have the expertise to make such judgements.
Five Big Questions
McKeone: How far does Jimmy Garoppolo have to go before he becomes the quarterback John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan believed he could be when they signed him to his big contract?
Inman: Everybody expects him to be the QB who went 5-0 in December 2017, and he’s not there right now in terms of his accuracy, in terms of how comfortable he looks in the pocket, but this is a process. I would figure it will take a couple months to really get back into the groove of things. The best part about it is that he has, I believe, the full backing of the coach and GM. This being San Francisco, home of the greatest quarterback controversy ever with Joe Montana and Steve Young, everyone is always looking for the next option if the QB struggles. Nick Mullens is fun, he’s got a great mojo and beat about him, but Garoppolo is far and away a more talented quarterback. The 49ers know this… I think Mullens will have a great career as well, but I think the Niners are fully supporting Jimmy. When people wonder if they could get out of the contract if they need to, they’re not going to get out of the contract unless he really, really struggles and throws a lot of interceptions.
McKeone: Outside of Kittle and Marquise Goodwin, who do you see emerging as a big target for Jimmy G from the Niners’ receiving core?
Inman: As popular a target George Kittle deserves to be, they need help at wide receiver, and that’s why they used second-day draft picks on Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd. Hurd has been out with a back issue, but Samuel got a start in his NFL debut. He had a modest stat line and had a couple mistakes, but this guy has power and physicality that reminds me of Anquan Boldin. I thought the world of Boldin, I think he’s one of the most underrated receivers of the last 20 years. I see similar traits in Samuel, and I think he wants greatness, but he’s humble about it. He’s got that tenacity that they want out of Dante Pettis. Pettis only played two snaps in Week 1, and it’s not necessarily a message to him, but they’ve been trying to send messages all year that, ‘In year two, Dante, you better step it up,’ because we can give Samuel and other guys a shot at it.
McKeone: Where should our expectations be for Nick Bosa in his rookie year?
Inman: If Nick Bosa is healthy, he’s a double-digit sack, full-time defensive end. We saw him a week into training camp and he looked like the best player on the field maybe outside of Kittle and DeForsest Buckner. He is a dominant player. He plays with veteran presence and power and speed, and he’s a technician. Dee Ford is the speed guy, and I would say Bosa is the technician. He’s been battling this ankle injury for a while, and this is the biggest concern with Nick. I don’t want to say durability, it’s almost just injury luck. If he’s cursed by injuries-- he had a big one in high school with his ACL, he had a big one at Ohio State with a core muscle tear, and he’s starting his NFL career off with a high ankle sprain that he’s trying to play through… Health is the No. 1 issue. It’s not his motor, it’s not his body type. But I love what I see when he plays. He’s a humble guy that knows he needs improvement, but he knows he can dominate. I think he was a sensational draft pick and the one the Niners needed to make to really improve their pass rush.
McKeone: As a whole, the defense appears more suspect than the offensive side of the ball. What level do you see this defense playing at this year?
Inman: I think it was actually the opposite in the season opener, because the defense saved the offense’s bacon. Garoppolo throws a pick-six, and in return the 49ers delivers two pick-sixes in the second half with Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon. These are cornerbacks who had no interceptions last year. The whole team had no interceptions from the cornerbacks last year and only had two from the entire defense. They were relying on an upgraded defensive front to help out all those defensive backs they brought back from last year’s suspect defense… [The formula] is that a better pass rush leads to a better secondary. That actually should help the offense come along if Garoppolo has a few hiccups here and there as he gets his feet back under him and as these young WRs develop. Now, they’re trying to juggle the running back core again, and the defense needs to come through a lot, especially in the first half of the season.
McKeone: The first two years of the Shanahan-Lynch partnership haven’t exactly gone according to plan, and there’s some sentiment that this is a make-it-or-break-it year for that duo. Do you agree with that sentiment?
Inman: I don’t. I don’t agree with it unless things go off the rails. I think these guys are safe throughout this season, and they’ll be there when the 2020 season starts .They got six-year contracts and obviously ownerships can change their mind… But every indication I’ve had is they’re thrilled with what they have in Shanahan and Lynch, that the organization is moving in the right direction. The first year was a big adjustment year as they tried to reshape the roster and gut it, then last year you lose your quarterback in Week 3, and they learned real fast that they needed upgrades on defense, especially the pass-rush. And they did that.
There is an urgency to win now, it’s just not do-or-die yet. As long as they show they’re a contender, which I think they’re going to do early in the season, those guys are safe. If they plummet and get to the midway point and they only have a couple wins, that’s not good, but I don’t think they’d make a wholesale change like that. If that’s the case, I think it would be because the defense is struggling, and that’s where they invested a lot this offseason, right? So if you need a scapegoat, you’re probably going to go with the defensive coordinator, but that defensive coordinator looked like a genius in Week 1, when they beat the Bucs and Mike Evans approached Witherspoon after the game and said, 'Did you guys know our gameplan? Because it sure looked like it.'
Five Little Things
McKeone: Favorite stadium in the NFL?
Inman: I’m going to say… Darn it, this isn’t fair. Okay, I think the best atmosphere in the NFL for a stadium is Seattle, without question. I would say my favorite stadium from an aesthetic point of view is Minnesota, and my favorite from a historical standpoint is obviously Lambeau.
McKeone: Go-to place to eat in San Francisco?
Inman: Oh, that’s not fair… The problem is, San Francisco has so many good restaurants… I’ll go with EPIC Steakhouse.
McKeone: Favorite person to interview in your career?
Inman: Covering the 49ers-wise, I would say Steve Young. Covering the NFL… I have a Mt. Rushmore: Al Davis, John Madden, Steve Young, and Bill Walsh. I had a one-on-one with Al for about three hours in his office 15 years ago, and to this day I think it would probably make a pretty good book. He covered so many different topics. I have every F-bomb typed out because that’s how Al spoke. I would say Young is my favorite person I’ve interviewed, and to this day I cherish the relationship because I think he’s such a wonderful guy and he’s so insightful and accommodating.
McKeone: What's something you now know about your job that you wish you knew back when you were starting out?
Inman: The financial rewards I knew wouldn’t be there as much as I hoped, but I would want myself to know that I would still be enamored with the sport as much as I am. I went to the Hall of Fame recently, and to me, I’ve been there a few times, but it’s the happiest place on Earth for a football fan. There’s so much memorabilia and nostalgia and reverence of the game. It reminded me how much I love and respect football.
McKeone: What's something about this job you feel like other people don't know?
Inman: One, We don’t root for the team. Two, We’re not friends with people on the team, we’re not supposed to be friends with people on the team. Three, the best perk about the job is not free hot dogs in the press box, because I stopped eating those about 20 years ago, but to me it’s about being able to travel the country. I’ve gone to every NFL stadium. I love going on the two or three-day road trips, going to explore the city, going to a barbershop, finding whatever the best craft beer is, and making new friends in a new city.