Molecular clock methods allow biologists to estimate divergence times, which in turn play an important role in comparative studies of many evolutionary processes. It is well known that molecular age estimates can be biased by heterogeneity in rates of molecular evolution, but less attention has been paid to the issue of potentially erroneous fossil calibrations. In this study we estimate the timing of diversification in Centrarchidae, an endemic major lineage of the diverse North American freshwater fish fauna, through a new approach to fossil calibration and molecular evolutionary model selection. Given a completely resolved multi‐gene molecular phylogeny and a set of multiple fossil‐inferred age estimates, we tested for potentially erroneous fossil calibrations using a recently developed fossil cross‐validation. We also used fossil information to guide the selection of the optimal molecular evolutionary model with a new fossil jackknife method in a fossil‐based model cross‐validation. The centrarchid phylogeny resulted from a mixed‐model Bayesian strategy that included 14 separate data partitions sampled from three mtDNA and four nuclear genes. Ten of the 31 interspecific nodes in the centrarchid phylogeny were assigned a minimal age estimate from the centrarchid fossil record. Our analyses identified four fossil dates that were inconsistent with the other fossils, and we removed them from the molecular dating analysis. Using fossil‐based model cross‐validation to determine the optimal smoothing value in penalized likelihood analysis, and six mutually consistent fossil calibrations, the age of the most recent common ancestor of Centrarchidae was 33.59 million years ago (mya). Penalized likelihood analyses of individual data partitions all converged on a very similar age estimate for this node, indicating that rate heterogeneity among data partitions is not confounding our analyses. These results place the origin of the centrarchid radiation at a time of major faunal turnover as the fossil record indicates that the most diverse lineages of the North American freshwater fish fauna originated at the Eocene‐Oligocene boundary, approximately 34 mya. This time coincided with major global climate change from warm to cool temperatures and a signature of elevated lineage extinction and origination in the fossil record across the tree of life. Our analyses demonstrate the utility of fossil cross‐validation to critically assess individual fossil calibration points, providing the ability to discriminate between consistent and inconsistent fossil age estimates that are used for calibrating molecular phylogenies.