In today's United States, where success often is measured by money, fame and power, Brent Musburger has stumbled upon a new status. He looks and sounds no different than he did a month or year ago, when he was simply a highly paid CBS sportscaster. But last week, Musburger, 44, signed a five-year contract with CBS for at least $1.3 million annually, making him perhaps the nation's highest-paid sportscaster and the Internal Revenue Service's poster boy for 1985.

CBS' offer came as ABC courted Musburger with major league baseball, "Monday Night Football" and the Olympics.

Musburger's role with CBS will change from that of recent years. He'll give up hosting "Sports Saturday" and "Sports Sunday" in exchange for play by play on college basketball and, on occasion, NBA games, as well as a role in the Masters golf tournament and continuing as host of "The NFL Today."

Musburger decided the weekend studio work was wearing thin. "I was getting irritable, yelling at people, making demands, being a big gorilla," he said while relaxing at a favorite watering hole near his home in Weston, Conn. "It's so demanding mentally. I decided I had to get back on the outside."

His work has changed remarkably in recent years. Once overbearing, he's now understated with his play by play. Taking a less-is-more approach, he lets the action carry itself, much the way NBC's Vin Scully did during the 1984 World Series.

"I pay attention to criticism," Musburger said, "and everybody I heard was saying that people talk too much on the air. The same thing was striking me. So you talk less. Then when you say something, it means so much more.

"I think when you first get started, you want to be noticed. You're not as willing to let the analyst in. Now I'm older, I'm more established. When I hear myself in the old tapes, I'm thinking, 'Why don't you shut up a bit?' "

It was an extraordinary switch for a sportscaster at the top of his field, as if Telly Savalas had decided, at the height of "Kojak," to grow hair on his head and pursue romantic comedies.

But Musburger's move was a shrewd one for a sportscaster trying to avoid audience burnout. For years, NBC's Curt Gowdy and ABC's Chris Schenkel were their network's top play-by-play men. Suddenly, there was talk of how viewers had tired of them, and the networks reduced their roles.

Musburger, too, is in danger of overexposure. At times, it seems, he's CBS' everyman, hosting roundup shows, doing play by play, answering switchboard calls.

"I'm very careful. I'm not a crusader and I try not to talk too much," he said. "You don't wear out your welcome quite as quickly. As much as I'd like to go till I'm 100, I probably won't make it. But I'll try."

Musburger is unabashedly pleased with his career. He said simply, "It's a great life." Asked what he thought he'd be doing 10 years from now, he said, "Probably the same thing I'm doing now. Let's see, that'll make me 54. I'll be able to make it. I really think so."

If he doesn't, some folks will blame the money, saying it changed him. Money, lots of it, tends to change people's perceptions of you. When baseball's Dave Parker started earning a million per year for the Pirates, the city of Pittsburgh was no longer his pearl.

"The money becomes the most delicate issue of all," Musburger said. "Four years ago, I signed an enormous contract with CBS. There wasn't much publicity. This time, it's a double-edged sword. Some might say, 'He must be good to get that money.' Others will say, 'The bum's not worth it.'

"Heck, I used to sit around and say that certain athletes weren't worth the money. Now the shoe's on the other foot. The athlete's got it tougher, though. Folks can't sit off-camera at 'The NFL Today' and boo me. They measure athletes by averages. It's harder to pin things down on me . . .

"The money makes me uneasy. Will it burn me out faster now because they're hanging on every word? I know this: ABC would have paid me more, and I'm certainly not going to give any of it back. I know how much the company takes in."

For a man who "would rather have been an athlete," Musburger makes few complaints publicly. He doesn't like how NBC's "NFL '84" people have been sniping at "The NFL Today." He doesn't like how ABC's Howard Cosell "thinks he's the only serious person in TV sports" and criticizes Musburger and others.

Musburger's biggest problem nowadays might be how to handle the money issue. From being kicked out of Northwestern University for breaking a freshman automobile rule to umpiring in the Midwest League for one year and working as a sportswriter until 1968, he has, in that unmistakable American fashion, cut himself an enormous piece of sports pie.

"When my older son, Blake (15 years old), first heard about it on the radio, he went, 'Two million dollars? Nobody's worth that kind of money. That's like winning the New York lottery.' Then my little one, Scott (12), comes in and says, 'Why didn't you get more?' "