Jim Stallings began to apologize for the recent construction tie-ups on the University of Texas at Dallas campus, but then stopped midway.
"That could be a selling point," he said last week, as much to himself as to a visitor. "If you're trying to recruit someone, you tell them about everything that's going to happen. You make them feel they're a part of something that's getting bigger."
Before he came to UTD, Stallings was a salesman. What he now sells is the school's chess program.
As one of the dominant teams in the country, the UTD chessmen are their own best recruiting tool. But with the field becoming more crowded – Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Brownsville are bidding to become national chess powers – the work of a college chess team recruiter is becoming more competitive every year.
It is still one of the rarest job descriptions in academia.
Though the exact numbers vary depending on whom you ask, only a handful of U.S. schools offer full scholarships based on chess skills, and only a few of those have designated chess recruiters.
In that capacity, Stallings for the last six years has attended local, state, national and international chess tournaments, where he meets the players, distributes promotional DVDs and pamphlets, and talks up the school's program.
But chess is not football.
When prospects come to visit the campus, they aren't flown in on an alumnus' private jet or feted by the head coach. No one signs a commitment surrounded by photographers.
"We stress the academics," Stallings said. "We ask if we can set up a meeting with some of our professors like, say, 'What about someone in microbiology or engineering or business administration?' It's a soft sell.
"It's not like we say, 'We'll get you a date with one of the cheerleaders.' "
Still, Stallings' approach is effective.
A recent New York Times story proclaimed UTD and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, as the two dominant teams in the country. It credited, among other things, the schools' recruiting efforts.
Alan Sherman, director of the UMBC program, disagrees.
"It isn't one of our strengths. Recruiting is the strength," Sherman said.
Sherman became his school's chess recruiter in the early 1990s, when the team was a doormat.
Like Stallings, Sherman said he keeps in touch with prospects and encourages them "in a low-key way" to come to UMBC. The scholarships are a major draw, and Sherman once helped a foreign student obtain a green card.
But aggressive tactics are rare. Attempting to poach another team's players is strictly out of bounds, and disparaging a competitor is considered bad form – unless it can be done subtly.
"I think we have a geographical location that many people prefer. We're along the East Coast and we're near a lot of big tournaments," Sherman said. "But, of course, there are some people in the Southwest who might prefer Texas."
When Daniel Ludwig, 19, a freshman from Orlando, Fla., had to decide between scholarships from UTD and UMBC, he said, he felt no pressure from either school.
He chose UTD because he liked the large size of the team and its camaraderie.
"You could tell at the tournaments that the UTD guys were having the most fun," he said.
One thing that keeps things civil is that the circle of teenage chess masters is so tight.
"The interesting thing about chess recruiting is that it's such a small group," Ludwig said. "When a recruiter talks to someone, they already know all about you."
One reason they do is the Elo ratings system – a metric ranking of chess skills of individual players. Invented by a physics professor and available online, the model has been adopted by Major League Baseball and college football's Bowl Championship Series.
To demonstrate, Stallings calls up the name of a scholarship applicant on his office computer.
"Here's a guy from Canada. He's got a 2400 rating, which is pretty darn good. He's like No. 17. So he's a good prospect," Stallings said.
John Boyd, 18, a freshman from Tehachapi, Calif., said he was always attracted to UTD because of its chess team.
Still, he heard from Stallings.
"I don't know which of us started it, but after I applied for the scholarship, we exchanged e-mails and then he called me two or three times," he said.
Again, the approach is always low-key.
"I don't go around the country and sit in their parents' living room. It doesn't work like that," Stallings said.